History, Louisa County Post-Emancipation Racial History

Learning more about Louisa County can help put the oral history interviews into context. It can be helpful to understand what the social, economic, and political landscape of Louisa County was like in the 1950s when listening to the interviews.
Cultural Narrative: 

Slavery shaped every facet of life in the South from the time it was instituted to the time it was abolished. Economic arrangements, religious worship, social exchanges, and cultural expressions all bore the mark of this practice. However, even after the official abolishment of slavery, many of these racist ideas and practices persisted and evolved to fit within new legal parameters. White Southerners could not own slaves anymore but they could still exploit and oppress African Americans. Because of the persistence and mutability of racism, it is critical to understand the long history of post-Emancipation racial relations. In the 1950s, African American residents in Louisa went to different schools, earned lower wages, avoided certain towns after dark, and were refused service at many restaurants and stores. All of these phenomena only make sense in light of white Southerners’ attempts to hold on to their racial privileges. Slavery might have been over in 1865, but both institutional and interpersonal racism were not.  

In the wake of the Civil War, African Americans asserted their newfound independence and freedom in the South. In particular, churches were sites of local control, wherein newly freed African Americans found community and empowerment. One of the first African American churches to be built and organized in Louisa County was the First Baptist Church in the court house village of Louisa. A man named Fountain Perkins helped organized First Baptist in 1866. Fountain Perkins was not only instrumental in helping form institutions for black empowerment, namely First Baptist Church and a school for freedmen that operated in the church, but he also served as a member of the General Assembly of Virginia that helped draft the Underwood Constitution. The Underwood Constitution required a statewide system of free public schools for all children. It also granted the vote to “every male citizen of the United States, twenty-one years old,” except some supporters of the Confederacy. It disfranchised men who had held public office before the Civil War who later had "engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.” Fountain Perkins exhibited the talent and fortitude of emancipated African Americans in the South. Despite facing criticism and persecution from white Virginians, he assumed public leadership, and he had a decisive hand in creating a more equitable future in Virginia through his work with the Underwood Constitution.[1]

Many white Southerners felt threatened by these advancements. They responded to African Americans’ empowerment with violence and legal restrictions. For example, white Southerners developed “Black Codes,” which made “vagrancy” a crime and turned many misdemeanors into felony offenses. These changes were targeted attacks on African Americans. They trapped newly emancipated men and women in the legal system, so they would then be forced to work for little to no money. White southerners throughout the South, including Virginia, enacted Black Codes to regain an abundant, cheap labor force that they could freely exploit.

Additionally, during and immediately after the Civil War, many former enslaved men established subsistence farms on land that had been abandoned by the Union army. However, President Andrew Johnson restored this land to its former owners. This forced many former enslaved men (and many poor white farmers as well) into a cycle of economic dependence known as sharecropping. Under sharecropping, landowners provided tenants with a portion of the crop they tilled in exchange for their labor. However, high interest rates and exploitative landlords and merchants often kept farmers permanently indebted. Moreover, laws favoring landowners made it difficult or even illegal for sharecroppers to sell their crops to anyone besides their landlord. These laws also prevented sharecroppers from moving if they were indebted to their landlord. Such discriminatory laws and tactics made it extremely difficult for sharecroppers to make a life for themselves and get out from underneath economic dependence. Between the enactment of Black Codes and the advent of sharecropping, it was extremely difficult for African Americans to make economic advances in the former Confederacy.

At times, white Southerners’ attempts to control African Americans manifested in deadly force. Lynchings were an all-too-common reality for African Americans. As African Americans gained rights and prestige in the last third of the nineteenth century (much like Fountain Perkins had), white Southerners wanted to roll back those advances by showing African Americans what fate could befall them if they did not behave in a “proper,” deferential manner. Lynchings often involved torturous rituals, and they served as a unifying cultural practice for white Southerners. Some white audience members would come to these lynchings straight from a church service, and some even took a train across the state to be able to celebrate these spectacles in person. It was not uncommon for the photograph of a lynching to become the front of a postcard that audience members would then send to their friends and families to let them know what had taken place.

Louisa County was home to this brutal practice. At least one recorded lynching took place in Louisa County during the period from about 1890 to 1930. The lynching was recorded in the Alexandria Gazette as follows: “In early July 1892, Joe William Anderson was accused of attempted assault on a white girl and put in jail in Louisa Courthouse. On the night of Tuesday, July 5th, ‘a mob surrounded the jail and took the prisoner to the woods near the line of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway and hung him to a tree. None of the parties concerned in the lynching are known.’” Two other incidents that would have likely ended in lynchings were avoided when the Louisa county sheriff moved prisoners Henry Kimbrough (1902) and Thornton Barker (1911), to Richmond “for fear of the mob.” White residents in Louisa County used violence, even to the point of death, to make sure African American residents knew their place in the social order.

White Southerners’ attempts to reinstitute control over African Americans culminated in the infamous 1896 supreme court decision Plessy v. Ferguson. Under Plessy, the Supreme Court held that segregation under the law was permissible under the “separate-but-equal” doctrine. African Americans were forced to sit at separate sections of movie theaters, libraries, and train stations. They could not use white water fountains, bathrooms, or swimming pools, among other facilities and amenities. Virginia’s Constitution of 1902 instituted poll taxes and literacy tests and mandated separate schools for white and African American children. Although Virginia public schools were racially segregated form the beginning, the Constitution of 1902 was the state’s first constitution to actually require segregation.

Slavery might have ended, but the period from 1865-1902 shows the persistence of racism. White Southerners created laws and practices to effectively ensure that African Americans would not get to maximize their hard-won freedom. They legally prevented African Americans from accumulating wealth and exercising power, and they forced cooperation with the use of extralegal, deadly force. While the abolishment of slavery meant African Americans could no longer be owned, “freedom” was still a distant dream.