Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 117 / Number 1
Surviving War and the Underground: Richmond Free Blacks and Criminal Networks during the Civil War
- By Carey H. Latimore, pp. 2–31
This article examines free African American life in the underground, a liminal space where hustlers, peddlers, pimps, plain folk, prostitutes, and thieves carved out a precarious existence. Although many variables led free African Americans to live in the underground, this article also explores how social pressures on free blacks, their struggles with hostile competitors, and Richmond police forced many to the underground. Nevertheless, free African American participation in the underground, the development of urban underground markets, and the relationships they developed across lines of status, race, and gender, demonstrate their tremendous resilience in the face of equally profound legal restraints and social prejudices. Instead of viewing free African Americans solely as victims of municipal abuse, however, this article argues that because many had few other options for survival than to live in the underground that free blacks entered the underground as active agents, finding more freedom there then they could ever expect to enjoy in open society. This study not only examines free African American agency in the underground, but it also demonstrates how Richmond's authorities understood the inherent dangers of these markets, not only the goods and services that underground markets kept from local residents, but also the power and equality free African Americans realized in them. Indeed, local municipal authorities believed that these markets threatened the fabric of southern society. For these reasons, municipal authorities made every attempt possible to destroy underground markets. The fact that the South was at war and that Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy only accelerated whites' deliberate attacks on the markets and their concerted efforts to close them down. Notwithstanding these attempts, the local Confederate government was ultimately unsuccessful in curtailing the underground, and local African American participants in this world continued to rebel against white authority by crafting relationships that provided the goods, relationships, and services that threatened not only southern society but the vitality of Richmond’s Confederacy itself.