Richard and Mildred Loving’s Legal Entanglement with Anti-Miscegenation Laws

Last Saturday I saw the beautiful new movie “Loving,” which tells the true story about the love between Richard Perry Loving, a white man, and Mildred Delores Jeter, a black woman, who were married in June 1958 in the District of Columbia. Soon thereafter they returned to their home in Caroline County, Virginia, where they established their marital abode and where they were criminally prosecuted and convicted for violating the state’s anti-miscegenation laws. They then were sentenced to one year in prison, but with suspension of the imposition of that sentence for 25 years on condition they live outside the state, which they did by returning to the District of Columbia.

Later the movie depicts  their challenge with the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), to the constitutionality of these Virginia statutes with the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruling in their favor.[1] Below is an actual photograph of the couple and one of the actors (Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton) who played the couple in the movie.

lovings

loving-movie

 

 

 

 

 

This beautiful movie prompted the following report of the legal details of their entanglement with anti-miscegenation laws.

Legal Proceedings in State Court

Their legal problems started with an October 1958 grand jury indictment charging the couple with violating the following provisions of Virginia’s ban on interracial marriages:

  • “Punishment for marriage. — If any white person intermarry with a colored person, or any colored person intermarry with a white person, he shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary for not less than one nor more than five years.” (Va. Code § 2-59)
  • “Leaving State to evade law.—If any white person and colored person shall go out of this State, for the purpose of being married, and with the intention of returning, and be married out of it, and afterwards return to and reside in it, cohabiting as man and wife, they shall be punished as provided in § 20-59, and the marriage shall be governed by the same law as if it had been solemnized in this State. The fact of their cohabitation here as man and wife shall be evidence of their marriage.” (Va. Code § 2-58)

On January 6, 1959, the Lovings pleaded guilty to those charges and, as previously mentioned were sentenced to one year in jail, but with suspension of the sentence for a period of 25 years on the condition that the couple leave the State and not return to Virginia together. The trial judge stated in his opinion that:

  • “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

The Lovings then returned to the District of Columbia, where they established their home for at least the next eight and a half years.

In the meantime, nearly five years after their convictions, on November 6, 1963, with the aid of attorneys from the ACLU, they filed a motion in the Virginia state trial court to vacate the judgment of conviction and set aside the sentence on the ground that the statutes which they had violated were unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Nearly 15 months later, on January 22, 1965, the state trial judge denied the motion to vacate the sentences, and the Lovings perfected an appeal to the state’s Supreme Court of Appeals.[2]

On March 7, 1966, the seven justices of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the anti-miscegenation statutes and, after modifying the sentence, affirmed the convictions.[3]  The entire opinion was based upon that court’s having upheld the constitutional validity of these statutes in a 1955 case (Naim v. Naim) and concluding that there had not been any change in the law on this issue in the subsequent 11 years. As the Virginia court stated:

  • “Our one and only function in this instance is to determine whether, for sound judicial considerations, the Naim case should be reversed. Today, more than ten years since that decision was handed down by this court, a number of states still have miscegenation statutes and yet there has been no new decision reflecting adversely upon the validity of such statutes. We find no sound judicial reason, therefore, to depart from our holding in the Naim According that decision all of the weight to which it is entitled under the doctrine of stare decisis, we hold it to be binding upon us here and rule that Code, §§ 20-58 and 20-59, under which the defendants were convicted and sentenced, are not violative of the Constitution of Virginia or the Constitution of the United States.”

Proceedings in U.S. Supreme Court

The Lovings appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which noted probable jurisdiction on December 12, 1966.[4]

After the attorneys’ briefing and oral arguments, The Supreme Court on June 12, 1967, issued its unanimous decision holding that the Virginia anti-miscegenation statutes were unconstitutional.[5]

In his opinion for the Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren noted that the two Virginia statutes in question were “part of a comprehensive statutory scheme aimed at prohibiting and punishing interracial marriages,”[6] that they were part of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, which was adopted in the “period of extreme nativism” of 1924 and that “[p]enalties for miscegenation arose as an incident of slavery, and have been common in Virginia since the colonial period.” Moreover, the opinion recognized that Virginia then was “one of 16 States which prohibit and punish marriages on the basis of racial classifications.”[7]

After rejecting various arguments advanced by the State of Virginia, the Chief Justice said, “There is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification. The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their own justification, as measures designed to maintain White Supremacy. We have consistently denied the constitutionality of measures which restrict the rights of citizens on account of race. There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause.”

The Court’s opinion also concluded that the Virginia “statutes also deprive the Lovings of liberty without due process of law in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.”

“Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival. . . . To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.”

Conclusion

 From a 2016 perspective, it is difficult for this blogger to believe that only 50 years ago 16 states in the U.S. still had anti-miscegenation laws and were trying to defend their constitutionality. As the movie clearly points out, the Lovings did not have the financial means to mount a challenge to these laws, and the legal assistance of organizations like the ACLU is absolutely necessary for such litigation to be conducted. [8]

While the various phases of the litigation were proceeding over nearly nine years, Mr. and Mrs. Loving had to live with this legal cloud hanging over them that prevented them from living in their native Virginia.

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in this case, the number of interracial marriages in the U.S. has increased from 0.4% in 1960 to 0.7% in 1970, 1.9% in 1980, 2.8% in 1990, 7.0% in 2000 and 10.0% in 2010. The date of the Supreme Court decision (June 12) is now remembered in the U.S. as “Loving Day” and the decision itself was cited as precedent in federal court decisions invalidating restrictions on same-sex marriage.

This case also reminded me of the personal story of Lawrence Hill, the noted Canadian author of “The Book of Negroes” about a young African woman who is kidnapped from her native village and taken by a slave ship to the U.S., where she becomes literate and is hired by the British forces at the end of the American Revolutionary War to create the actual Book of Negroes to register those Negroes who helped the British and who thereby were eligible to evacuate Manhattan with their forces. As discussed in a prior post, Hill’s parents— a black father and a white mother —were U.S. citizens who emigrated to Canada the day after they were married in 1953 in the District of Columbia in order to escape racial discrimination and anti-miscegenation laws. Both of them were involved in the human rights movement, an influence Hill readily acknowledges.

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[1] Dargis, Review: In ‘Loving,’ They Loved. A Segregated Virginia Did Not Love Them Back, N.Y. Times (Nov. 2, 2016)  The movie is directed by Jeff Nicols and stars Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga.

[2] The Virginia trial court presumably was pressed finally to issue its decision on the motion to vacate by the Lovings commencing on October 28, 1964, a class action in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia requesting that a three-judge court be convened to declare the Virginia anti-miscegenation statutes unconstitutional and to enjoin state officials from enforcing their convictions. On February 11, 1965, the three-judge District Court continued the case to allow the Lovings to present their constitutional claims to the highest state court.

[3] Loving v. Commonwealth,206 Va. 924, 147 S.E.2d 78 (Va. Sup. Ct. 1966) ; Naim v. Naim, 197 Va. 80, 87 S.E.2d 749 (Va. Sup. Ct. 1955). remanded, 350 U.S. 891 (U.S. Sup. Ct. 1955), aff’d, 197 Va. 734, 90 S.E.2d 849 (Va. Sup. Ct. 1956), appeal dismissed, 350 U.S. 985 (U.S. Sup. Ct. 1956).

[4] Loving v. Virginia, 385 U.S. 986 (1966).

[5] Loving v. Virginia, 386 U.S. 1 (1967). Mr. Justice Stewart submitted a brief concurring opinion to reiterate his  “belief that ‘it is simply not possible for a state law to be valid under our Constitution which makes the criminality of an act depend upon the race of the actor.’”

[6] Other provisions of the Virginia statutes automatically voided all marriages between “a white person and a colored person” without any judicial proceeding (§ 20-57) and defined “white persons” and “colored persons and Indians” for purposes of the statutory prohibitions (§§ 20-54 and 1-14).

[7] The other states with anti-miscegenation laws were Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. (Justices Upset All Bans On Interracial Marriage, N.Y. Times (June 13, 1967).)

[8] As discussed in an earlier post, I was a pro bono volunteer attorney for the Minnesota ACLU chapter in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a Minneapolis Police Department raid and arrests of citizens at a political fundraiser.

 

Report for dwkcommentaries–-2013

This blog, which started on April 4, 2011, reports the following activity through December 31, 2013:

POSTS COMMENTS VIEWS
2011 190 26 9,190
2012 179 170 51,161
2013 86 708 49,100
TOTAL 455 904 109,451

The busiest day for 2013 was December 2 with 282 views. For 2013 as a whole the viewers came from 174 countries with most from the U.S.A. followed by Canada and the United Kingdom. This blog has 392 followers (Facebook, 269; direct, 103; Tumblr, 2; and commentators, 18).

The following were the most popular posts in 2013:

  1. Great Britain’s Deteriorating Relationship with Her American Colonies, 1765-1775 (July 16, 2012);
  2. The American Revolutionary War’s Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 (July 30, 2012);
  3. The American Revolutionary War’s Battles of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, April 19, 1775 (July 2012);
  4. The American Revolutionary War’s Siege of Boston, April 19, 1775–March 17, 1776 (July 27, 2012); and
  5. The American Revolutionary War’s Campaign for New York and New Jersey, March 1776–January 1777 (August 2012).

As indicated in detail on Page: List of Posts and Comments to dwkcommentaries–Topical, the posts and comments for 2011-2013 fell into the following categories:

  1. Personal
  2. Higher Education
  3. Religion/Christianity
  4. Lawyering (practice of law)
  5. U.S. History
  6. U.S. Politics
  7. El Salvador
  8. Cuba 
  9. Human Rights Treaties & U.N. Human Rights Council
  10. Refugee and Asylum Law
  11. Alien Tort Statute & Torture Victims Protection Act
  12. International Criminal Justice
  13. International Criminal Court
  14. Miscellaneous

The blogger would appreciate receiving substantive comments on his posts, including corrections and disagreements.

Over the last half of the year this blogger was preoccupied with selling his suburban town house, buying and remodeling a downtown condo and moving. In this period he also was very discouraged about U.S. political developments. As a result, he was unable to write any posts after September 5th. In 2014 he plans to gradually resume his blogging.

The “Revolutionary Summer” of 1776

 

U.S. Declaration of Independence
U.S. Declaration of Independence

Revolutionary Summer

Today is the 237th anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776.

That document, however, is only one of the important events in Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, the latest book by American historian, Joseph J. Ellis.[1] Here are comments on only a few of those other important events.[2]

In May of that year, the Continental Congress adopted a resolution that John Adams, its principal author, later saw as the real declaration of independence. This  resolution “recommended to the respective assemblies and conventions of the United Colonies, where no government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs have been hitherto established, to adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general. “[3]

That resolution’s resolution preamble set forth an indictment of King George III. He had “excluded the inhabitants of these United Colonies from the protection of his crown; And whereas, no answer, whatever, to the humble petitions of the colonies for redress of grievances and reconciliation with Great Britain, has been or is likely to be given; but, the whole force of that kingdom, aided by foreign mercenaries, is to be exerted for the destruction of the good people of these colonies; And whereas, it appears absolutely irreconcilable to reason and good Conscience, for the people of these colonies now to take the oaths and affirmations necessary for the support of any government under the crown of Great Britain.”

Therefore, the resolution’s preamble continued, “it is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted, under the authority of the people of the colonies, for the preservation of internal peace, virtue, and good order, as well as for the defence of their lives, liberties, and properties, against the hostile invasions and cruel depredations of their enemies.”

Thereafter the legislatures of New England and Virginia voted in favor of independence while those in New York and Pennsylvania did not. But in Pennsylvania mechanics, artisans and farmers created a provisional government that supported independence. A similar movement in New York was blocked, and its legislature did not join the independence movement until after the Congress had issued its Declaration of Independence.

More generally, the Ellis book asserts that the period from May through October of 1776 was the pivotal moment in American history when “a consensus for American independence emerged and was officially declared, the outlines for an American republic were first proposed, the problems that would shape its future were faced and finessed, and the largest armada ever to cross the Atlantic arrived to kill the American rebellion in the cradle, which it then very nearly did.” The political and military events of this time influenced each other and need to be told together, says Ellis.

As the author of several posts about the American Revolutionary War through the summer of 1776,[4] I was reminded by the Ellis book that for nearly 15 months the War had been fought without a collective decision that the objective for the colonists was independence from Great Britain. It started at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts in April 1775 and continued through the American siege of Boston and the Battle of Bunker Hill. This uncertainty about the American purpose in the War officially ended with the U.S. Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, or with the May congressional resolution previously mentioned.

Until the Declaration of Independence the official policy of the Continental Congress remained loyalty to King George III, and one of the congressional leaders, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, ardently believed that seeking independence would be suicidal to be avoided at almost any cost. Dickinson and others in the Congress sought to find a compromise that would preserve colonial rights without independence and that would end the War.[5] Similar efforts in Britain were lead by Edmund Burke in the House of Commons and by William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham, in the House of Lords.

These efforts, of course were unsuccessful, and the War resumed that year with British victories in the Battle of Long Island (Brooklyn), the Continental Army’s withdrawal from Manhattan (after its success in the Battle of Harlem Heights) and the Battle of White Plains.

These British military victories were made possible by the massing of a large British military force in New York that year.

As Ellis notes, in early July, Lord Germain, the British Foreign Secretary, “managed to defy the insuperable obstacles of space and distance to coordinate [a] three-pronged assault so that it converged on Staten Island … [nearly] simultaneously.”  First under the command of General William Howe were the 9,000 British troops that had evacuated Boston and retreated to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Second under the command of General Henry Clinton were 2,900 British troops from the South Carolina coast. Third under the command of Admiral Richard Howe were 150 ships, 20,000 troops and a six-month supply of food and munitions from Great Britain; it was “the largest armada to cross the Atlantic” before World War I. This accomplishment “was eloquent testimony to the matchless prowess of the Royal Navy.”

Indeed, the British, and especially its military leaders (General William Howe and Admiral Richard Howe) had ample reason to believe that the obvious superiority of their forces would cause the colonists to recognize the futility of their effort and to seek peace. As a result, the Howe brothers repeatedly refused to press their advantage in the field and destroy the Continental Army. In retrospect, they “lost a golden opportunity to end the American rebellion at its inception.”

The British military solution, however, had precisely the opposite effect on the American people and on the Continental Congress. It helped to build support for American independence.

As he concludes his book, Ellis says there were three major results of the Revolutionary Summer. First, “the Continental Congress was immune to any British proposal for reconciliation.” Second, there was no American consensus on how the former colonies would be united and as a result no consensus on creating a fully empowered Continental Army. Third, these prior results “virtually ensured a long conflict that the British could not win for political reasons and that the Americans could not win for military reasons.”


[1]  Ellis is History Professor at the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He previously taught at Mount Holyoke College and at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He is one of the nation’s leading scholars of American history and the author of prize-winning books about the revolutionary era.

[2] Reviews of the book have appeared in the New York Times by Andrew Cayton and by Michiko Kakutani and in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

[3] In the Spring of 1776 John Adams focused his attention on devising a framework for an American government after independence, and he wrote four memoranda on the subject, the last of which was published in April as “Thoughts on Government.” Each state government, it suggested, should have an elected governor as executive, an elected bicameral legislature and a judiciary.

[4] The prior posts provide an overview of the American Revolutionary War and discussions of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the mustering of the Minute Men, the Siege of Boston, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Campaign for New York and New Jersey, the Battle of Brooklyn (Long Island), the Battle of Harlem Heights and the Battle of White Plains.

[5] In July of 1775 Dickinson was the principal author of the American Declaration on Causes and Necessities of Taking Up Arms that has been seen as a statement of a self-defense rationale for the American rebellion that is consistent with the doctrine of just war.

Watertown, Massachusetts, 238 Years Ago

Yesterday (April 19, 2013), Watertown, Massachusetts was the searing focus of at least the U.S. news with the killing of the first suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing and the search for, and ultimate capture of, his brother, the second such suspect.

On April 20, 1775 (238 years ago today), Perley Brown (my maternal fifth great-grandfather) and his fellow Minute Men from Leicester, Massachusetts marched into Watertown and stayed the night before going on the next day to Cambridge to take part in what became the American Revolutionary War. Here is the original settlers’ map of Watertown:

Watertown, Massachusetts
Watertown, Massachusetts

Further Reflections on “The Book of Negroes” Novel

A prior post summarized Lawrence Hill’s novel The Book of Negroes while another post provided a brief look at the relevant historical background of the novel–the fate of the Black British Loyalists in the American colonies during and after the American Revolutionary War.

Lawrence Hill
Lawrence Hill

Now we examine Hill’s own reflections about his novel and how his biography has influenced this novel and his other books. [1]

He first heard about the historical Book of Negroes in 1980 when he read The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, a scholarly book by Canadian historian James W. St. G. Walker.

Hill immediately knew from reading the Walker book that one day he would write the fictional story of a woman who had to have her name entered into the Book of Negroes.  But it took at least 15 years before he felt he was ready to tackle such a large project. In 2002 when he began to research and write the novel, he examined for the first time reproductions of the actual Book of Negroes. Another topic of his research was the activities of the British abolitionists. The size of this project is indicated by the five years it took to research and write the novel.

His greatest surprise from his research was discovering that among the Black Loyalists who left Nova Scotia for Sierra Leone in 1792 were some who had been born in Africa and thus were returning home. This back-to-Africa exodus took place 30 years before American slaves went to Africa to found Liberia and more than a century before Jamaican Marcus Garvey urged blacks in the Diaspora to return to the motherland.

From the moment of his conception of the novel, Hill said, it was a woman’s story. As a writer, he locates stories in the lives of the people who have the most to lose, and Aminata as a mother had the most to lose.

A constant question for him in all of his writing, he said, was how does someone survive horrible events in life. Every book or story requires an overarching theme, which for him is what does the main protagonist want. For Aminata in The Book of Negroes it is “I want to go home to Africa.”

Lawrence Hill’s parents — a black father and a white mother —were U.S. citizens who emigrated  to Canada the day after they married in 1953 in Washington, D.C.in order to escape racial discrimination and anti-miscegenation laws. Both of them were involved in the human rights movement, an influence Hill readily acknowledges.

Born in Canada in 1957, Hill was raised in a predominantly white Toronto suburb. He has a B.A. in economics from Laval University in Quebec City and an M.S. in writing from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Although Hill always wanted to be a creative writer, he immediately recognized that he needed to have some kind of gainful employment to support himself financially as he was starting his writing career. These sidelines, he acknowledges, helped his creative writing.

He spent three years as a journalist with Toronto’s The Globe and Mail and The Winnipeg Free Press and learned how to write quickly on short deadlines and to recognize that his words could be changed by editors. He then spent a year in Spain writing short stories, but realized that his quickly written letters from Spain to friends were more lively and better written. For the next 15 years he was a free-lance speech writer for Canadian politicians and in the process learned how to write for different voices.

Hill’s international travels have also influenced his writing, especially his volunteer trips to West Africa. While in Mali, for example, he met a midwife by the name of “Aminata,” which he used as the name of the main character in The Book of Negroes.

Now Hill is an accomplished and recognized author. In addition to The Book of Negroes, he has published two other novels, a memoir, three other non-fiction books and the script for a film.

He is a member of the Council of Patrons of the Black Loyalist Heritage Society. Hill has received the Diamond Jubilee Medal from Queen Elizabeth II, the Medal of Distinction from Huron University College, the Freedom To Read Award from the Writers Union of Canada, the Award of Excellence from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and the Rev. John C. Holland Award of Merit from the Hamilton Black History Committee. Hill also holds honorary doctorates from the University of Toronto, Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo.

This coming fall Hill will be Canada’s Massey Lecturer and has said the lecture’s theme will be “how beliefs, traditions, rituals, phobias, and obsessions about blood influence how we see ourselves individually and societally.”

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[1] This post is based primarily upon materials on Hill’s own website and his recent remarks at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference.

The Black British Loyalists Through the Eyes of Novelist Lawrence Hill

Lawrence Hill
Lawrence Hill

As mentioned in a prior post, the amazing saga of the Black Loyalists in the American Revolutionary War is not widely known. Helping to make it better known is the novel, The Book of Negroes, by Canadian novelist, Lawrence Hill.

the-book-of-negroes1

The novel takes the form of a memoir written in the early 19th century by a West African woman, Aminata Diallo.

She starts with her mid-18th century abduction as an 11-year-old girl from her West African village and being forced to walk for months to the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. There she is put on a slave ship that takes her to South Carolina, where she begins a new life as a slave.

Aminata is intelligent and as a slave learns midwifery skills and how to read and write. Nevertheless, her life as a slave is not easy.

Book of Negroes (page)
Book of Negroes (page)

Her story begins to intersect with that of the Black Loyalists near the end of the American Revolutionary War when she goes to New York City. Because she is literate, she is hired by the British to prepare the Book of Negroes, which provides identifying information for Black Loyalists to be evacuated from the City to go to Nova Scotia for a new and promised better life as free people. In Hill’s words, it was like a group passport or visa. Aminata is one of those so evacuated.

Life in Nova Scotia, however, is not as easy or as great as the British had promised, as demonstrated in the historical record and in the novel, for Aminata and the other Black Loyalists.

Eventually some of the Black Loyalists leave Nova Scotia to go to Sierra Leone in western Africa, as documented in the historical record. In the novel, Aminata is one of those Black Loyalists returning to Africa.

Aminata’s fictional life, however, also includes a trip to London, where she is used in the early 19th century by the British abolitionists to support their arguments for ending the slave trade. To her consternation, abolition of slavery itself is not part of the abolitionists’ agenda.

Guides for the novel for teachers and readers are available on Hill’s website.The novel is now being made into a TV series.

The novel won the overall Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Ontario Library Association’s Evergreen Award and CBC Radio’s Canada Reads. The book was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright LEGACY Award and long-listed for both the Giller Prize and the IMPAC Award.

When my best friend from college who lives in Toronto gave me a copy of this novel several years ago, I had never heard of it and was startled by the title, “The Book of Negroes.” Was this some racist tract? I wondered, but my friend quickly disabused me of that notion.

I found it hard to believe that any male writer, much less an assumed white man, could write so beautifully and convincingly in the first person of an African woman. It was only much later that I discovered that Hill is biracial and that his personal history coupled with his writing skills clearly helped him to write this wonderful book.

A subsequent post will explore Hill’s comments about the novel and his biography.

 

 

 

The Fate of Black British Loyalists in the American Revolutionary War

At the start of the American Revolutionary War in April 1775, the population of the American colonies was approximately 1.5 million. Of these at least 300,000 were black slaves, mainly in the south. [1]

Lord Dunmore
Lord Dunmore

On November 14, 1775, John Murray, Earl of Dunmore and Royal Governor of the Colony of Virginia, issued a proclamation offering freedom to slaves who would leave their masters and join the British side. That proclamation declared, in part, “all indentured Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining His MAJESTY’S Troops as soon as may be.” [2]

Sir Henry Clinton
Sir Henry Clinton

By 1776 the Dunmore Proclamation became general British policy throughout the colonies, and in 1779 Sir Henry Clinton, who was a top British General, issued the Philipsburg Proclamation expanding Dunmore’s Proclamation to include any rebel slave who could escape, ready to serve for the British or not, anywhere in the colonies.

Although only an estimated 800 slaves immediately joined the British in Virginia as a result of the Dunmore Proclamation, eventually as many as 30,000 slaves throughout the colonies did so and worked as soldiers, laborers, pilots, cooks, and musicians for the British.

General Charles Cornwallis
General Charles Cornwallis

In the final battle of the War, the Battle of Yorktown, in October 1781, the British were defeated, and British General Cornwallis surrendered and thereby abandoned hundreds of black soldiers to the Americans for a return to slavery.

By the winter of the next year (1782), it had  become clear that the British would soon have to evacuate the American colonies. At the time thousands of Loyalists were in the British-held strongholds of New York, Charleston, and Savannah. All Loyalists knew that staying in the new country invited retaliation against them by the victorious Americans, and as a result many left the colonies.

The Black Loyalists were at the even greater risk of being returned to slavery and subjected to cruel punishment for having escaped. Indeed, the terms of the Treaty of Paris ending the War required the British to return the former slaves to their owners.

When those treaty terms became widely known in the colonies, many white slave-owners and their agents from the southern states went to New York City to kidnap and seize their former slaves in anticipation of the signing of the treaty. In addition, the British abandoned some of the Black Loyalists to the Americans or sold them in the West Indies or traded them for White Loyalist prisoners.

When the War formally ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783, the British were nearing the end of their seven-year occupation of New York City (then only the southern end of Manhattan). Thereafter, over the next three months, the British evacuated more than 29,000 military personnel, Loyalists and liberated slaves from the City although the Treaty of Paris required the British to return the slaves to their owners.

Among those evacuees were 3,000 former black slaves or Black Loyalists who were listed in “The Book of Negroes.” [3]

Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia

The Black Loyalists on the List of Negroes were taken to British-controlled Nova Scotia where they formed the first free settlements of free Africans outside Africa.  Despite British promises of freedom and land, they soon were subjected to racial discrimination and even slavery and to very difficult conditions.

By the 1790’s the Black Loyalists had given up hope of fair treatment in Nova Scotia. They were ready to leave for a new promised land, and soon their opportunity arrived in the form of the Sierra Leone Company, eager to recruit Black Christians for their new colony on the west coast of Africa. Many of the Black Loyalists decided that an uncertain future in Africa was better than certain misery in Nova Scotia.

In January 1792,15 ships with over 1,100 Black Loyalists left Nova Scotia. When they arrived in what is now Sierra Leone in March of that year, they met conditions that were not better than what they had left.

Today the descendants of the Black Loyalists from Nova Scotia are an important ethnic group in Sierra Leone and still meet and dominate certain churches.

Conclusion

As a white U.S. citizen in 2013, I confess that I did not know any of this history until I had read the Lawrence Hill novel about The Book of Negroes and did research for this and the earlier post referencing the novel.

For the African slaves in the colonies in 1775, the Dunmore Proclamation must have seemed like the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to escape the horrors of slavery. Yet it required great courage for anyone in those circumstances to attempt to, and actually, escape slavery in the hope that they would be free people. I give thanks for their courage and for their descendants’ creation of a Canadian society to honor their ancestors’ courage and history.

At the same time, once must also acknowledge that the estimated 30,000 Black Loyalists were only roughly 10% of the black slaves in the colonies at the time. The other 270,000 black slaves did not have the courage to try to escape or for whatever reasons had decided to cast their lot with the rebelling colonists. Some even fought for the colonists in the War. It would be interesting to know more about them.

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1 This post is based upon secondary sources, primarily upon the superb “Black Loyalists: Our History, Our People.” I encourage comments correcting any errors in this post or amplifying on the history of the Black Loyalists.

2 In response the next month (December 1775) the Virginia legislature passed a law that prescribed death for “all negro or other slaves, conspiring to rebel or make insurrection” against their owners while offering pardon to those who ”return in safety to their duty.”

3 “The Book of Negroes”  was mentioned in a prior post along with the novel of the same name by Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill. A subsequent post will discuss recent comments about the novel by Hill along with some of his biographical information.