Black Initiative and White Anxiety on Virginia's Eastern Shore: Black Political Participation and the Maritime Underground Railroad, 1775 -1844

Porche, Chloe Celeste , History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Varon, Elizabeth, AS-History, University of Virginia

In 1820s and 1830s, enslaved African-Americans on the Eastern Shore of Virginia resisted their bondage in a surprising manner. As groups of ten or more, they armed themselves, stole boats, and navigated to New York. Powerfully, these bondspeople’s persistence in this particular form of resistance—mass maritime self-emancipation to free states—soon rattled the white residents of the Eastern Shore and ignited their concerns over slave retribution. In an effort to stem these elopements, various leaders on the Shore agitated their state government for assistance. Yet, these mass maritime self-emancipations persisted. In 1839, a similar, yet separate incident to the south in Norfolk involving one fugitive slave and three free African-American sailors ignited a political conflagration between Virginia and New York. Despite the desperate nature of these incidents, together they illustrate growing power of the maritime Underground Railroad and demonstrate the ways in which African-Americans shaped American politics in the early republic and antebellum era. Barred from citizenship and formal pathways to political participation, African-Americans in bondage did not passively accept the restrictions of their rights or access to the ballot box. Instead, enslaved African-Americans participated in American politics by working to end their own bondage. However, in expressing their political voice through these persistent attempts to self-emancipate, enslaved black Americans exacerbated political tensions between free states and slaveholding states and initiated a geopolitical ripple that thrust the question of slavery’s constitutionality onto the national stage.

MA (Master of Arts)
mass maritime self-emancipation , geography of containment, rival geography, fugitive slaves, runaway slaves, self-emancipation, slave resistance, slave resistance on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, slavery on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, antislavery politicians, immediate abolitionists, influence of David Walker’s Appeal, abolitionism, antebellum black political participation, black rights in antebellum New York, nineteenth century black activism, William Henry Seward's early antislavery politics, David Ruggles, Thomas H. Bayly, maritime Underground Railroad , Underground Railroad , New York Underground Railroad
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