Landscapes Of Freedom: Restoring The History Of Emancipation & Black Citizenship In Yorktown, Virginia, 1861-1940
Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
During the Civil War, thousands of refugees from slavery fled to Yorktown, Virginia, where they established a thriving community. Unlike many refugee communities across the South, Yorktown’s residents successfully fought to occupy the land they had claimed after the U.S. army demobilized. In doing so, they established a permanent base from which they launched their efforts to claim the rights and privileges of citizenship and protect their newly gained political power. Visitors to modern day Yorktown will glimpse only traces of this history on its current interpretive landscape, one that today commemorates not black freedom gained during and after the Civil War but rather the independence achieved for white colonists in the American Revolution. Landscapes of Freedom: Restoring the History of Emancipation & Black Citizenship in Yorktown, Virginia, 1861-1940 seeks to address this imbalance by tracing the history of emancipation and freedom in Yorktown. It centers the actions of black Virginians in this history to explain how formerly enslaved and newly enfranchised people envisioned, enacted, and contested freedom. And it emphasizes how black Americans have always been central actors in the history of the nation. In mapping the history of this community from the Civil War through the postwar era, Landscapes of Freedom reveals continuity in strategies formerly enslaved people utilized to advocate for themselves. By centering the words and actions of black actors rather than federal agencies, Landscapes of Freedom demonstrates that from the moment they claimed freedom, black Americans sought to be central participants in the work of defining its meaning. When white allies – whether Quaker teachers, Union generals, Freedmen’s Bureau agents, or white Republicans – did not acknowledge black residents’ equality, black residents acted independently and charted a path that prioritized self-determination. Landscapes of Freedom takes seriously the work of memory not just as a contest over the legacy and meaning of the Civil War, but also of the nature and identity of the nation. By engaging in memorial activities, black residents made claims on the postwar state, demanding recognition as equal participants in the saving of the Union and as members of the body politic. They used these commemorative events to remind audiences that black Americans had always been important members of the nation and that they deserved an equal role in determining its fate. In fact, black residents in Yorktown used the historical significance of their home during the Revolution to underscore their claims to citizenship and belonging after the Civil War. By understanding these events as part of a broader narrative landscape Americans were establishing in the postwar era, Landscapes of Freedom frames black commemorative activities as an important form of calculated political rhetoric. Exploring this history at the community level adds texture and complexity to the history of wartime emancipation and postwar freedom by making the actions of everyday people legible. While historians such as Chandra Manning and Amy Murrell Taylor have produced excellent studies of refugee communities during the Civil War, their investigations are by necessity wide-ranging. In contrast, Landscapes of Freedom enables readers to see how people engaged in political work through everyday transactions and interactions. Moreover, it highlights how the work of claiming and negotiating freedom did not end when the U.S. army left the South. In the twentieth century, the National Park Service forcibly relocated descendants of the founding generation of Yorktown’s black community from what is now Yorktown National Battlefield, a celebration of Yorktown as the “birthplace” of the United States in the Revolutionary War. In doing so, the N.P.S. constructed an exclusionary and incomplete narrative of the United States. Landscapes of Freedom seeks to help recover Yorktown’s black history so that we can begin the work of reincorporating black Americans into the essential history of the nation.
© The Author
Toy, Rebecca Capobianco, "Landscapes Of Freedom: Restoring The History Of Emancipation & Black Citizenship In Yorktown, Virginia, 1861-1940" (2021). Dissertations, Theses, and Masters Projects. William & Mary. Paper 1638386895.
Available for download on Friday, August 27, 2027