Joan W. Peters wrote
the introduction to the 1995 edition of of June Guild's
Black Laws of Virginia. It is printed here with
permission from The Afro-American Historical Association
of Fauquier County (AAHA).
Both Virginia’s colonial legislature and the state’s
General Assembly passed a massive amount of legislation relating
to slaves and the free Negro. The laws that resulted were left to
the local jurisdictions to interpret and enforce. In this instance,
this was the local county court system.
2. Virginia and the Negro in the Seventeenth Century
Negroes first appeared in Virginia in August 1619, transported
aboard a Dutch frigate, not as slaves but as indentured servants.
These twenty Negroes, three of whom were women, bound themselves
as indentured servants, to work for masters for a specified length
of time in return for their passage across the Atlantic. For the
next seventy-five years, indentured servitude by both Negroes and
whites provided a satisfactory solution to the need for a labor
By 1691, this situation had undergone a dramatic change and it
became customary to hold black indentured servants past their term
of service. A variety of factors contributed to this change in status
for black indentured servants. The supply of free labor decreased
while their costs went up. Britain began to take control of the
lucrative African and Caribbean slave trade so that there were larger
numbers of Negroes from those countries for export to America. By
the mid 1660s, Virginia law recognized the word “slave”
as referring to an existing class, thus creating a legal basis for
slavery. At the same time, the small yeoman holdings were superseded
by plantations, dependent upon crops like tobacco and strategically
situated along the major rivers leading to the Atlantic. This in
turn led to a greater demand for an agricultural labor force.
In 1662, the colonial legislature enacted a law stating that the
children of Englishmen and Negro women were to be slave or free
according to the condition of the mother.
In 1680, the tidewater planters, now in control of the legislature
worried enough about the meetings held by their black bondsmen at
plantation gatherings and at burials to usher passage of a law forbidding
arms such as clubs, staffs, guns, swords or other weapons to Negro
slaves; furthermore, slaves were forbidden to leave their owner’s
plantation without a certificate and then only when necessary.
In 1681, the legislature became alarmed at the “inconvenience”
to the colony that occurred upon the emancipation of Negroes and
mulattos (and its resultant increase in a free Negro population).
They feared these freed slaves might entice other Negroes from their
masters’ service or become recipients of stolen goods, or
be so elderly that the counties would have to maintain them. So
the legislature passed a law forbidding emancipation of any Negro
or mulatto unless the owner paid for his transportation outside
Virginia within six months of setting the slave free. This law had
the effect of making black bondsmen slaves for life.
In the same year, the legislature passed the first of many laws
outlawing intermarriage between and English or other white man or
woman, bond or free, to a Negro, mulatto, or Indian man or woman,
bond or free. The penalty was banishment from Virginia.
In 1698, the colonial legislature reiterated that the condition
of children born in Virginia, whether bond or free, was according
to the condition of the mother. If the mother was a free woman of
color, the child was free. If the mother was a slave, the child
was also a slave.
3. A Sampling of Virginia’s laws relating to slaves
and free Negroes before the Revolutionary War.
In 1704, alarmed by the numbers of free Negroes who owned
slaves, the legislature decreed that no Negro, mulatto, or Indian
could purchase any Christian servant, except of their own complexion,
as slaves. Negroes were forbidden to purchase any white Christian
servant. During the next year, they reaffirmed the restrictions
in travel, forbidding slaves to leave the plantation on which
they lived without a certificate of leave. Slaves were also forbidden
weapons. Penalty for disobeying these laws was twenty lashes for
In 1723, the legislature addressed emancipation one more. Negro
and Indian slaves could not be set free except for meritorious
service, which was to be so adjudged, by the Governor and Council.
If slaves were freed without the approval of the Governor and
Council, the parish Church wardens were to sell the emancipated
slave a public auction. The proceeds were then to be applied for
the use of the parish. This law was to remain in effect until
after the American Revolution.
- Slaves as property
The colonial legislature addressed the nature of slavery
as property twice during the eighteenth century. Earlier in the
century, in 1705, they decided that Negroes, mulattos, and Indian
slaves held within Virginia, were to be held as real estate and
not chattel and could descend unto heirs and widows according
to the custom of land inheritance. Slaves, whether Negro, mulatto,
or Indian, could be held in absolute ownership. In 1748, the law
was repealed and replaced with an ordinance stating that Negroes,
mulattos and Indian slaves were to be considered personal property.
- Voting Rights
The colonial legislature moved to abolish voting rights for free
Negroes and Indians in 1723.
4. Eighteenth century laws regarding illegitimate children
and poor orphans and poor children of color.
There were several laws passed during the eighteenth century regarding
illegitimate children and poor orphans or poor children of color.
In 1750, indentured women servants who had illegitimate children
by a Negro or mulatto, were liable for a £15 fine for the
use of the parish or sale of the servant for five years after the
expiration of her original indenture. The children of such a union
were to be bound out as servants until they reached the age of thirty-one.
Sixty years later, in 1765, the legislature passed a law decreeing
that illegitimate children of women servants and Negroes or free
Christian white women by Negroes, were to be bound out. The boys
were to serve until they reached the age of twenty-one, the girls
until they were eighteen.
In 1785, the General Assembly transferred this responsibility to
the Overseers of the Poor. Then, in the first decade of the nineteenth
century, Overseers of the Poor were forbidden to bind out any black
or mulatto orphan to a master that would teach his apprentice reading,
writing, or arithmetic.
5. Sheep Farming and Black Laws
In 1752, the legislature moved to protect sheep farming. This law
prohibited Negroes or slaves from carrying any dog whatsoever from
one plantation to another. The penalty for ignoring the law was
two fold: the death of the dog and a whipping of 20 lashes on the
perpetrator. There was, however nothing in this law to hinder an
owner from sending a slave from place to place with the owner’s
hounds, spaniels, pointers or setters.
6. Black Laws after the Revolutionary War
The last two decades of the eighteenth century saw the
General Assembly pass a host of laws relating to free Negroes
and to slaves. Following the aftermath of the American Revolution
and its ideals engendered by the Declaration of Independence,
the Virginia legislature decided to allow emancipation of slaves
by deed, will, or other instrument of writing. The document had
to be signed, sealed and witnessed.
The former owner was to be responsible for the support of any
emancipated slaves not of sound mind and body or over the age
of **five. Likewise, the emancipator was to be responsible for
children: boys under 21 year of age and girls under 18 years of
age. A copy of the emancipation was to be given to the freed slave.
The penalty for being not with a copy was jail, especially if
the freed slave traveled outside the county. Liberated slaves,
who could not pay parish or county levies, could be hired out
by the Sheriff for as long as it took to raise the money they
During this same period, the General Assembly granted immediate
emancipation to any Negro slave who had served in the Revolutionary
war. For owners neglecting to emancipate these veterans, the General
Assembly gave them the right to petition the local County Court
for the right to sue for their freedom.
- Legal definitions
Two years after the close of the Revolutionary War, the members
of the Virginia General Assembly wrestled with the definitions
of Negro and mulatto. Every person whose grandfathers or grandmothers
were Negro, although all other progenitors were white, were to
be deemed as “Negro”. Any person with one quarter
or more Negro blood was to be deemed “mulatto.”
- Restrictions to individual rights
At the same time that the Assembly was loosening some of the bonds
of slavery, they were tightening others. Ion 185, the General
Assembly enacted legislation proscribing slaves from traveling
from his residence without a license or a letter showing he has
permission to do so from his master. Slaves were also forbidden
to keep arms; riots and unlawful assemblies were punishable by
The year 1792 was a busy year for lawmakers and for legislation
relating to free Negroes. In that year, Negroes and mulattos were
forbidden to carry firearms although free Negroes could be permitted
one gun; Negroes, bond or free, living on the frontier could be
licensed to carry a gun. In 1806, free Negroes were proscribed
from carrying a “firelock” of any kind without a license.
In 1792, there were a variety of other laws passed: conspiracy
to rebel, or make or cause and insurrection, became a felony punishable
by death. Negro and mulatto slaves were adjudged to be personal
estate. Slaves were not to trade as free men. Intermarriage between
a Negro man or woman and a free white man or woman was punishable
by a six-month jail term. The legislature levied a $30.00 fine
on the parties involved and a $250.00 fine on the minister.
- Certificates of Freedom
Other laws were passed that related to indentured servants who
were issued a Certificate of Freedom upon satisfactory proof of
the termination of their service. The county courts extended this
certificate to emancipated Negroes upon proof of their emancipation
by deed or will or other instrument of writing.
- Apprenticeships and Care of the Poor
In 1765, the colonial legislature passed legislation dealing with
apprenticeships. The House of Burgesses provided apprenticeships
for bastard children of women servants and Negroes or free white
women and Negroes. Boys were to be “Bound out” until
they were twenty-one; girls until they were eighteen. The former
law apprenticing children until they were thirty-one was thought
to be too severe on the children and was repealed.
In 1785, legislation provided for district overseers of the poor
in the county. The Assembly transferred powers held by the old
church warden system to the overseers of the poor.
Then, in 1792, the General Assembly passed a law providing for
the poor, lame, blind and others who are unable to maintain themselves.
They empowered overseers of the poor to provide poor houses, nurses
and doctors of the care of the poor.
The county courts directed the overseers of the poor to apprentice
orphans and children to a person that the court approved. Boys
were bound out until they were twenty-one, girls until they were
- The “Quasi-free”: the practice of hiring
slaves out as free
The year 1793 proved to be as busy. The legislature voted to stop
the practice of Negro slaves from hiring out as free persons and
to keep a closer eye on the free Negro population found throughout
the local communities in the Commonwealth.
Slave holders had tended to allow their Negro slaves to hire themselves
out, especially those who were skilled artisans. No the legislature
forbade this practice; owners of these “quasi-free”
slaves could be indicted by a grand jury for hiring their slaves
out contrary to law. The Negro slave found himself in jail while
the owner was hauled into court and made to pay jail fees.
- Registers of Free Negroes
During the same year, the General Assembly passed legislation
to register all free Negroes and mulattos in the Commonwealth
with the clerk of the Court in the community in which they lived.
[They were] free to sell their services, [and] were to be registered
and numbered in a book by the town Clerk. This register recorded
name, age, color, status of emancipation details—by whom
and in which county court the registered Negro had been freed.
The law required free Negroes and mulattos to re-register every
three years. Unregistered free Negroes could be jailed as runaway
These certificates and registers served as the free Negroes’
legal identity; these “free papers: as they came to be called,
kept free people of color from jail or from being identified mistakenly
as slaves. Recent research indicates that while some free Negroes
came in to make the initial registration, many did not re-register
unless their original papers had been lost.
Law involving the registration of free Negroes remained in effect
until the Civil War. Only one substantial change was made and
that occurred in 1834. The Court alone could order the registration
of free Negroes by the clerk of the county court, the register
was now to include notes of marks and scars in the description
of the registrant.
- Law for Petitions to sue for Freedom
The General Assembly also make it lawful in 1793 for any Negro
slave who felt that he or she was held illegally in bondage to
petition the Court for the right to sue for their freedom. Research
concerning these petitions suggests that while there were some
notices of these suits in local county courts, there were only
a few instances in the Minutes or Orders where one could trace
the outcome of these petitions.
- Laws about forging counterfeit registers
In 1795, the legislature decreed that any person who forged or
counterfeited papers giving a slave freedom was to pay a $200.00
fine and suffer imprisonment for one year without bail.
8. A Sampling of Nineteenth Century Black Law
- Commissioner of Revenue Lists of Free Negroes
In 1801, the state legislature decreed that county commissioners
of the revenue were to return a complete list of all free Negroes
in their district on an annual basis. This list was to contain
names, gender, residence, and trade of each free Negro. A copy
of the list was to be posted on the door of the county court house.
If a registered free Negro moved to another county, then magistrates
there could issue a warrant for him unless he was employed. Otherwise,
he would be jailed as a vagrant.
- Petitions to remain in Virginia
In 1806, the General Assembly moved to remove the free Negro population
from Virginia with a law that stated that all emancipated slaves,
freed after May 1, 1806, who remained in the Commonwealth more
than a year, would forfeit his right to freedom and be sold by
the Overseers of the Poor for the benefit of the parish. Families
wishing to stay were to petition the legislature through the local
In 1826 the Sheriff replaced the Overseers of the Poor as the
selling agent for free Negroes remaining in Virginia. The Court
could authorize this sale only upon a jury verdict or confession
by the party. In 1831 the law was amended slightly: the sheriff
could sell the free Negroes at an auction who remained in Virginia
contrary to the 1806 law.
This law remained in effect until 1837 when the General Assembly
changed their mind, inundated by this time with petitions from
free Negroes and from whites dependent upon their skills. Now,
the legislature said, any slave emancipated since May 1, 1806
could apply to the local court for permission to remain in Virginia.
Upon satisfactory proof that the petitioner was of good character,
peaceable, orderly, industrious, and not addicted to drunkenness,
or other vices, permission could be granted. A notice had to appear
on the court house door for two months announcing the petitioner’s
intent to remain in the State and three-quarters of the justices
of the court had to agree that the individual, couple, or family
- Asylum for freed slaves outside the continental United
In 1816, the General Assembly sought to obtain asylum beyond the
United States for free persons of color and passed a resolution
to request the Governor to correspond to the President for the
purpose of obtaining territory on the coast of Africa, or on the
shore of the North Pacific, now within the boundaries of the United
States which would serve as an asylum for free Negroes.
Then in 1833, after the abortive Nat Turner slave rebellion, the
legislature appropriated $18,000.00 per year for five years to
encourage the transportation and subsistence of free persons of
color to emigrate to Liberia or other areas on the west coast
- Criminal Offenses
In 1823, any free Negro who was convicted of an offense
punishable by imprisonment for more than two years, was not punished
by whipping and sold as a slave and banished from Virginia, at
the discretion of the Court of a jury. If free Negroes or slaves
willfully assaulted and beat a white person with intent to kill
and was convicted of this offense, they too could be punished
by a public whipping and banishment from the state. If the convicted
person returned to Virginia, he or she could be hanged.
- Impact of Nat Turner’s failed slave rebellion
After the failure of the Nat turner slave rebellion in
1830, the Virginia General Assembly passed a variety of laws curtailing
slave and free Negroes’ right to assembly. To prevent free
Negroes from assembling and speaking at church, the legislature
forbade preaching by slaves, free Negroes, or mulattos at religious
meetings. Indeed free people of color and slaves were forbidden
to hold any religious meeting during the day or evening. The penalty
for violating this ordinance was a public whipping of thirty-nine
Slaves attending religious meetings without the consent of their
master were also liable to a public whipping. However, religious
instruction to slaves of free Negroes could be given during the
day by a licensed white minister and the slaves of any one owner
could assemble for religious instruction during the day.
In 1832, the Assembly addressed riots, unlawful assembly, trespass,
sedition, and conspiracy to commit insurrection. If slaves or
free Negroes wrote or printed anything advising people of color
to commit insurrection or rebellion, the perpetrators were to
be whipped. The same penalty was instituted for riots, unlawful
assembly, trespass and seditious speeches.
During the same year, the legislature prohibited Negroes from
selling or giving away liquor near any public assembly. The penalty
for violating this law was also a public whipping.
- Free Negroes’ rights to own slaves
Another law passed in 1832 curtailed the rights of free
people of color to own slaves. After this date, no free Negro
would be able to acquire ownership of any slave, except through
inheritance, other than his own spouse or children.
In 1858, further restriction took place. Free Negroes could now
own slaves only through inheritance.
- Laws that curtailed individual rights
In 1843, the legislature curtailed slave and free Negro
rights to dispense medicine. Selling, preparing or administering
medicine became a misdemeanor whose penalty was a public whipping.
Preparation of drugs by free Negroes that caused abortions carried
a penalty of five to ten years in prison. If a slave prepared
a drug to cause abortion, the first time offender received a public
whipping. Any offense after that was a hanging offense.
In 1858, free people of color could not buy wine or ardent spirits
unless they had written permission from three or more justices
that they were sober, orderly and of good character. In 1860,
free Negroes could not be ordinary or tavern keepers and were
proscribed from selling hard liquor.
- Laws relating to Criminal Offenses
In 1846, the General Assembly granted justices of the
peace the right to try any free Negro who committed simple larceny
of offenses valued to $20.00. If convicted, the free Negro faced
a public whipping of thirty-nine lashes. If acquitted, the acquittal
If a free person of color assaulted a white person with intent
to kill, his conviction carried with it a prison term between
five and eighteen years
In 1860, the legislature decreed that free Negroes who committed
offenses punishable by imprisonment in the penitentiary could
be, at the discretion of the county court, sold into absolute
The foregoing is a sampling of the laws passed by the Virginia
legislature before the Civil War. It is against this backdrop of
legislation that the editors invite your inspection of June Guild’s
enduring classic: The Black Laws of Virginia.