Friday, December 11, 2009

Gloucester, 1836

While rummaging around in cyberspace today doing research on an issue in Gloucester, I came across a fascinating bit of history. Fascinating in a dark sort of way. It was a copy of a petition to the General Assembly in Richmond, the governing body of state legislators, that had affixed to it the names of 184 Gloucester men. The petition was dated Jan. 13, 1836, a full 25 years before the outbreak of the Civil War. It seeks permission to levy taxes to raise $15,000 to "remove free Negroes" from the county. The petitioners noted that it had become increasingly difficult to keep their slaves in proper subjection and that it "becomes them, with a due regard to their interests to adopt some efficient means of remedying the evil."

The petitioners make their case thusly: "The principle cause to be assigned for the insubordination existing, at present among the slave population is the residence of the Free people of colour, who not only add nothing to the effective labour of the County, but are dissolute in their morals, and by their example promote sedition and vice of every kind among the slaves. Their idleness, which they seem to regard as the only privilege freedom confers, together with the degraded rank they occupy in society, engenders discontent among themselves, which the liberty they enjoy of roving about at large through the County, gives them every opportunity of sowing the seeds of dissatisfaction among the slaves." The petition also asks the General Assembly to take actions it deems best to check the efforts of the "Northern fanaticks" seeking to abolish slavery. It's an ugly document and it's hard to fathom what life must have been like in this friendly community so long ago.

I don't know if the petition effort was successful. That requires more research. The animosity between the men of Gloucester and the freed slaves and Northern abolitionists was abundantly evident. And to think that animosity between the groups festered a full 25 years before it exploded in war. One of the signers of the petition was a fellow by the name of Joel Hayes. He owned a large farm in central Gloucester called "Woodville Plantation." It is now the site of a 100-acre county park under construction that's called "Woodville Plantation Park." During the Civil War, Yankee troops on a foraging mission raided Hayes' farm and in the course of the raid one of Hayes' daughters took a potshot at a Union soldier. For this, the Union troops burned Hayes' home to the ground. At the close of the Civil War, Hayes was essentially bankrupt and he died in December 1865.

Today a debate simmers in Gloucester on the name of the newest county park. "Woodville Plantation Park" isn't inviting to blacks, some say. They want the word `plantation' dropped from the name. Others say you can't alter history and the name should remain, with the county taking the opportunity to use the name to educate the public about the plantation and life around it. Whichever way this thing goes, some people on either side will be unhappy. Of course, the other side of the discussion is this: Aren't we thankful that we're not sending petitions like these to the General Assembly?

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