Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)




Melvin Patrick Ely


This dissertation seeks to explain why more than 110 African American individuals proposed to enslave themselves (and, in some cases, their children as well) in Virginia from 1854 to 1864. I examine the act of the Virginia legislature in 1856 "providing for the voluntary enslavement of the free negroes of the commonwealth" and suggest that this law provided some free Afro-Virginian individuals with an alternative to removal from the state and separation from their families (as called for by the sporadically enforced 1806 expulsion law, passed in part to discourage manumissions). I argue that if receiving legal freedom threatened a free black Virginian with removal, then a legal enslavement that allowed for domestic freedoms---a meaningful family life and a connection to a homeland or community---could come to seem preferable.;Many scholars have suggested that, by passing the 1856 self-enslavement law, legislators intended to facilitate the wholesale enslavement of Virginia's free black population. They have assumed that the passage of Virginia's so-called voluntary enslavement law marked the nadir of free black life in the state and the height of antebellum repression of a class that Virginia politicians at times unequivocally deemed to be "an evil." But such an interpretation of the law in Virginia is a misreading both of the intentions of white lawmakers and of the law's use by free blacks. to enslave oneself in the state during the politically tense 1850s was generally not an easy task. Safeguards incorporated into the law itself ensured that neither the state nor individual slaveholders could coerce free blacks into servitude. In fact, if the state played any part in self-enslavement, it was in an attempt to prevent it.;Through data gathered in county will books, court minutes, ended papers in chancery and law causes, personal property tax lists, and various other county sources, as well as state and federal records, I attempt to illuminate the lives of those individuals who chose to become legally enslaved---all in an effort to draw larger conclusions about the multiple meanings of manumission, freedom, and slavery to African Americans in nineteenth-century Virginia.



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