Choices: Fredericksburg and the American Colonization Society

From John Hennessy:

To assist in the regeneration of one continent and the amelioration of another, are the noble ends before us.

– Report of the Fredericksburg Auxiliary, American Colonization Society, 1834

We like our history in contrasting bundles–Democrats and Republicans, secessionists or unionists, white and black, pro-slavery and anti-slavery, and so on.  But rarely are things so simple.

Virginian Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the first president of Liberia, 1847

Fredericksburg was a slave town. In 1860, one-third of its population was enslaved. The domestic slave trade here was a significant industry–local newspapers routinely carried ads for the sale of slaves (we have written extensively about this here, here, here and elsewhere). Slave jails dotted the landscape, and slave coffles were a common sight in town. Town council passed laws in support of slavery and slaveowners. Slavery was a constant in the landscape, clearly part of Fredericksburg’s fabric.

But it does not follow that Fredericksburg was monolithic when it came to the issue of slavery. White residents did not always abide what we presume was conventional wisdom–the bland acceptance of slavery.  They did not always conform to our traditional understanding of Fredericksburg as a “slave society.” Rather Fredericksburgers were acutely aware of the intellectual and moral dilemma slavery presented, and each was well aware of the choices available to them in pre-war Virginia. Most chose to embrace slavery. Others acted on their instincts to ameliorate or mitigate the impact of slavery, both on slaves and on Fredericksburg society. (I have, incidentally, found little evidence of Fredericksburgers standing up to actively oppose slavery. Abolitionists were a rare, perhaps extinct presence.)

The major vehicle for those whose moral compasses compelled them to take action to improve the condition of slaves (without ending slavery) in Fredericksburg was the American Colonization Society. Founded in 1817, the purpose of the ACS was to repatriate “free people of color” to Africa–specifically to the country we now know as Liberia. The Society was a sometimes odd alliance of people who believed firmly that colonization in Africa was the best outcome for free blacks or newly freed slaves and those who simply wished to rid the United States of all free people of color–in part because they believed the presence of a free black population destabilized slavery at large. For them, colonization offered an opportunity for some ethnic cleansing, American style.

William M. Blackford, editor of Fredericksburg’s Political Arena, husband of Mary Minor Blackford, and one of Virginia’s most active advocates of colonization.

Fredericksburg’s chapter of the ACS formed in 1819, and for much of its existence had at its core members of St. George’s Episcopal Church. While it’s impossible to judge the motivations of all those in Fredericksburg connected to the ACS–and there were many–it does seem, at least, that there was a solid core who supported the ACS because they firmly believed that colonization was best an improvement over life within a racist America. In this respect, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison saw the Fredericksburg chapter as more progressive than its parent organization. “If the Auxiliary Society of Fredericksburg do not aim at the removal of the entire colored population, it is to their credit, and proves that they may justly claim an intellectual superiority to the mother institution,” he wrote in 1832.

By far the most active of Fredericksburg’s families were the Minors of Hazel Hill and the Blackfords, who lived at 214 Caroline Street. William Blackford, editor of the Whig Political Arena, believed, as he wrote, that “we do not ameliorate the condition of the slave by emancipation.” His wife, Mary Berkeley Minor Blackford, was Fredericksburg’s most active advocate for colonization and the ACS (and temperance too). Though a slave owner (see here for our earlier post about Mary Minor Blackford), she donated $1,000 to the society and made needlework for fundraising (she admitted “sales did not go well” in Fredericksburg).

The Blackfords sponsored the passage of at least seven of their slaves to Liberia, though they did not find their way clear to end their family’s involvement in slavery altogether. The Maryland Colonization Journal reported on Mary Blackford’s preparation of one of her sponsored colonists, Abram,  “a young man of fine appearance and good character.  It is “no more than justice to Mrs. B., a firm and long-tried friend of colonization, to say that she has had Abram under a course of preparation for years, and has devoted much care and attention to his education. We doubt not he will make a valuable citizen, and be a lasting credit to her generosity, and a blessing to his race.”

Rev. Lancelot Byrd Minor, a Fredericksburg native, died in Liberia in 1843.

Mary Blackford’s brother, Lancelot Byrd Minor, was even more ardent in the name of the ACS than his sister. An Episcopal minister who grew up in St. George’s on Princess Anne Street, he went to Liberia as the pastor of a church for repatriated colonists. He fell ill and died there in 1843. His tombstone reads, “Let the Mission Go Forward; let it go forward more than ever.”

In 1838, young Susan Metcalfe, who lived at what is today 1106 Princess Anne Street, married Dr. Thomas Savage, M.D.. The two departed on their honeymoon–not to Niagara Falls or the Bahamas, but to Liberia. Nine months later, Susan died of illness and was buried there. A memorial stone stands in the Metcalfe family plot in the Masonic Cemetery on Charles Street. (Click here and here for images of Susan’s memorial stone in the Masonic Cemetery.)

Some of Fredericksburg’s most prominent names appear on the list of officers of the local chapter of the ACS. John L.Marye of Brompton, for example. Marye believed firmly in the genetic (as perceived by many 19th century Americans) and biblical foundations of slavery–indeed the protection of slavery was a major component of his arguments for and against secession in 1860. Yet, he still saw value in the ACS–not, obviously, as a means of ending slavery, but apparently as a way to improve the lot of newly emancipated slaves.

My point in all this: Fredericksburgers, and all Americans, clearly saw the moral (as well as economic and racial) implications of slavery, and Fredericksburg struggled mightily with the great American antebellum dilemma, as described by Charles Minor: The “inconsistency of [our] Country’s making such loud boasts of liberty while we kept many of our fellow creatures in abject slavery, denying them some of the dearest rights of human beings.”

“Tell all those who want to come, come—a free country this is, fine malicious fruits grow here, enough to attract the noblest minds…If any man be a lazy man, he will not prosper in any country, but if you will work, you will live like a gentleman, and Africa is the very country for the colored man.”                                                            – Abram Blackford, a Fredericksburg immigrant to Liberia,

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