Interesting Facts About Black Lynchburg History
by Henry Powell

I borrowed through the Public LibraryÕs Interlibrary Loan System, a book, ÒThe Negroes of Lynchburg, VirginiaÓ, a publication of the University of Virginia, Number 5 of a series in the Phelps-Stokes Fellowship Papers. This slender volume, researched and written by Benjamin Guy Childs, contains a wealth of surprising information about Black people in the early days of the city. ÒFrom the meager facts available, it is known that when the first census of the town was taken in June 1816, it was discovered that over twelve hundred Negroes, about two hundred and fifty of them free, were part of the three thousand inhabitants. Thus from the beginning of LynchburgÕs life as a town, an appreciable proportion of the population has been colored. It may be further observed that an unusual proportion of the Negroes were free, since in the same year that nearly twenty percent of the Lynchburg Negroes were counted as Òfree personsÓ, the percentage for the state at large was only eight. Many of the Negroes owed their freedom to the activities of the Quakers.Ó There is an essay, ÒRediscovering the Early Quakers of LynchburgÓ by this writer, which tells the story of how the early Quakers of the town freed their slaves. A copy of this essay may be obtained at Quaker Memorial Presbyterian Church at a cost of about $3.00 (the cost of copying and binding). These statistics indicate that Lynchburg in that time contained about two and one half times as many free Negroes as in any other place in the state!! ÒIt is believed that early Lynchburg Negroes were employed largely as household servants or as laborers in the tobacco fields around the town. Very soon, however, they became useful in another capacity, that of boatmen for the large fleets or bateaus plying between Lynchburg and Richmond. Large numbers of them were engaged in this Òhardy calling, demanding skill, courage and strengthÓ. (In light of this information, LynchburgÕs annual Bateau Festival, can hardly be a true representation of the bateau industry of early times, since I do not recall seeing any black participants in the Festival. Is the absence of blacks an oversight, or is it due to apathy, or is it because we did not know how important blacks were in this trade? I wish to be corrected if I am mistaken in my belief that blacks do not participate in the Festival. So, if you have knowledge that is different from mine, please let me know.) ÒFor the first fifty years following the founding of Lynchburg, the Negroes were accustomed to attending the religious services in the churches of their masters, where separate seats, usually galleries, were provided for them. Not a few of them became members of the white churches. In 1830, however, the first Negro church was built on Court Street, and the pastor of one of the leading white Baptist churches of the town served as minister of the new colored congregation.Ó (This is, no doubt, the present-day Court Street Baptist Church). ÒThe Negro population increased in numbers quite as rapidly as did the white. In 1850, the census showed a total of nearly four thousand persons of color, of whom nearly five hundred were free.Ó ÒDuring the ten years preceding the Civil War, the colored population was very materially affected by the influx of a considerable number of freed Negroes from other states, chiefly Louisiana and Alabama.Ó (This statement raises several questions, Why Lynchburg? Why did these ÒforeignersÓ migrate here? Could it be that the cruelly restrictive laws that hampered and obstructed nearly every aspect of the lives of freed Negroes in Louisiana and Alabama were less stringently enforced here? Could it have been that Lynchburg, having historically had in its population a sizeable body of free Negroes, took a somewhat more relaxed and tolerant view of their black citizens? Or were there better opportunities for employment here?) ÒThese and others of the freed Negroes of the city made up what has been called the Òcolored aristocracyÓ the influence of which may be seen in the life of the Negroes even in the present time. (Just after the turn of the century.) At the beginning of the Civil War there were nearly five thousand Negroes in Lynchburg, and more than one out of every six was free. The percentage of the colored population which was free was higher than that for the State at large and considerably higher than that for any other Virginia city. Much of this was due to the ÒimmigrationÓ of free Negroes. From this brief overview several important facts emerge: 1. Lynchburg has always had among its population, an inordinately large number of free Negroes. 2. The earliest black residents of the city found employment as house servants, and in the tobacco fields that surrounded the city. 3. Later, the bateau industry which utilized the rivers as the cheapest, quickest means to send goods and local products to Richmond, employed many Negro boatmen. 4. Court Street was the first church built in the city for Negroes (1830). 5. Negroes have been part of the population of Lynchburg from its earliest beginnings. 6. The Quaker founders of the city freed their slaves thus creating a more relaxed atmosphere and a greater tolerance for free Negroes.

Since May 15,1997


Copyright © 1997 Piedmont Area Journal. Lynchburg,VA.
All rights reserved. Revised: May 15, 1997.