On Violence, Resistance, and Self-Determination

By Hunter Moyler

As I’ve been working with Untold RVA and Free Egunfemi this summer, two of the aspects of Richmond history I’ve been tasked with finding and recording is that of Black resistance to adverse power structures and self-determination.

“Self-determination,” as you might deduce, refers to a person’s ability to determine their own fate and the steps they take in order to overcome the adversity that may prevent them from doing so. “Resistance” is similar. It denotes the avenues by which marginalized groups challenge the unjust social order of their day. I’ve found that in the era of slavery, which most of my research has centered around, a plethora of the deliberate acts of self-determination and resistance included radical, often violent, subversions of laws, laws created to fence-off African Americans from achieving anything approaching equity with their European contemporaries.

And when I say violent, I mean it. Look no further Angela Barnett, a free Black woman who lived in Richmond in the late eighteenth century, who killed a man who broke into her house under the suspicion that she was harboring an escaped enslaved man. (Sidbury, Ploughsares into Swords, 4) Or, take Martha Morriset, an enslaved woman who, along with others living on Chesterfield County plantation, murdered her so-called “mistress” after she tried to “correct” her and then chopped up her body and tossed the remains in the James. (Sidbury, 220 – 221) And, of course, I’d be tragically remiss not to mention that General Gabriel, as part of his unfructified plan to establish a free Virginia, intended to kill all Whites “except Quakers, Methodists, and French people” (Amateau, Come August, Come Freedom, 220) until Governor Monroe assented to the soldiers’ demands for emancipation for all of the Old Dominion’s Black population.

The actions of these people were certainly bold moves to take their lives into their own hands and subvert their oppressors, and of course these ought to be recorded and remembered. Each time I read about the enslaved retaliating against their captors, I take note of it. But such reading has placed a smorgasbord of food for thought in front of me, and I’m beginning to feel a smidge bloated.

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Controversy, Context, and Consecration at the Museum of the Confederacy

By Hunter Moyler

Notwithstanding my fifth-grade teacher’s contention that the Confederate battle flag was something “we” used during the war and a banner all southerners, particularly Virginians, could flaunt proudly, I have always read it as something bad. A symbol worthy of loathing, and, at times, fear.

My earliest recollection of the flag comes from when I was a chubby-cheeked Cub Scout. The Pack attended a small reenactment of a Civil War battle. (The battle didn’t take place in our town, but since it is Virginia, you’d best believe it was probably one or two miles over the hill.) When I saw the Johnny Wannabe Rebs step out with St. Andrew’s Cross, I promptly stood up and shouted, “Boo! The South! You guys stink!” causing everyone’s heads to swivel toward me like southern cannons rearing to fire. And I was the Yankee.

Dad and I went home a little early that day.

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Counties & Cities: A Tale of Two Regions

By Hunter Moyler

Long gone are the days when my millennial mind could assume it to be common knowledge, but it remains a verifiable fact: When you mix politics and prejudice, you get stupid. Evidence of this is conspicuous in modern America and, according to many, infuriatingly unavoidable. However, to avoid stepping on the toes of the living, let us turn to the history of political borders right here in the Commonwealth of Virginia in order to illustrate this phenomenon.

Even this early into my research into how structural racism has shaped the Richmond region, I’ve already learned some tremendously interesting information about the effects institutionalized prejudice has wrought. Perhaps most interesting is the fact that my hometown exists largely because there were white parents in the 1960s who didn’t want their children to go to school with black people — and that Richmond’s current boundaries are in part attributable to the same reason.

See, in the part of Virginia I grew up in, South Hampton Roads, most people don’t live in counties. The majority of the region is constructed of “independent cities” that all border each other, crammed into the commonwealth’s southeast corner like too many pickles in the same jar. Three of these — Chesapeake, Suffolk, and Virginia Beach — are veritably massive by city standards. The biggest has an area over one hundred square miles larger than New York and more than twice as large as Chicago. Below is a map of the area. That these county-sized swaths of land are considered mere “cities” is completely ludicrous. To use the aforementioned term, I think it might be a smidge stupid.


I’ll explain: In my research this summer, I’ve read excerpts from Richmond’s Unhealed History, a book by Dr. Benjamin Campbell on the history of racial prejudice (the lion’s share of which was government-sanctioned) in and around the city. In the chapter, “Massive Resistance and Resegregation,” the author details the plethora of legal and legislative hoops the Virginia General Assembly leapt through to defy the federal government’s mandate to integrate public schools after the principle of “separate but equal” was ruled unconstitutional in 1954’s Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board.

Dr. Campbell writes that part of this Massive Resistance included a “massive retooling of the jurisdictional lines in Virginia and of the laws governing metropolitan areas.” (Campbell 168) Oh, boy. So how did they do it?

Politicians used “white flight” to their advantage. This refers to the mid-century trend of white families to leave the inner city for the suburbs, in part so they could keep their children out of school districts with substantial black populations. By 1960, for example, most white families in the Richmond metro did not live in the city proper, but rather in the surrounding counties of Henrico and Chesterfield. (Campbell 168) The same was true for Hampton Roads in that decade: The city of Norfolk had a large black population, but one dwarfed by the white populations of surrounding counties. (Campbell 169)

Norfolk and Richmond were growing, as cities tend to do. Because they were independent cities, they were able to annex portions of their surrounding counties. Some white people in these counties didn’t want to be annexed, though. Not only would their children now be within the boundaries of majority-black school districts, but their voting power as the racial majority would be greatly diminished.

Counties in Hampton Roads were so fearful of annexation that they turned to a provision in the Virginia constitution to keep safe from it. According to the constitution, independent cities could annex land from counties, but not other independent cities. So, naturally, the majority-white statesmen and citizens from the counties surrounding Norfolk scrambled to re-establish themselves as independent cities to avoid annexation. (Campbell 169) The General Assembly, of course, was compliant, resulting in Hampton Roads’s current silly city divisions. This paranoid fear of black people is why Virginia Beach, Suffolk, and my beloved Chesapeake exist, and also why they’re the size of counties.

In Richmond, the approach was a bit different. Since the city was growing, it did indeed attempt to annex parts of the surrounding counties and achieved some success. But instead of allowing, say, Henrico County to consolidate into the City of Henrico, the General Assembly opted to place restrictions specifically on the City of Richmond. In 1971, it bizarrely prohibited the city from annexing any land from the surrounding counties. (Campbell 173)

I found this information jarring. I was aware of the far-reaching effects of structural racism, but I would not have guessed that it was directly responsible for the very borders of my hometown and my adopted city. This history permeates the state, and to this day still factors into where people go to school and, subsequently with whom they associate.

Campbell writes that “The troubles that still afflict the culture of metropolitan Richmond have their roots in problems long denied, changes not attempted, prophecy unheeded, [and] injustice unacknowledged.” I’m not sure how well-known these facts about redrawing political lines are around the state, but I know I can’t have been the only person unaware. Naturally, this history must be confronted if it is to ever be reconciled, which is why I believe the Race & Racism Project and Untold RVA’s work is vital.

Hunter Moyler was raised in Chesapeake, Virginia. He is a rising junior at the University of Richmond, double-majoring in English and Journalism with a minor in Spanish. He is vice president of the College Democrats at the University of Richmond and co-editor of the Opinions section in The Collegian. This summer, he’s elated to have the opportunity to delve into the history of race relations in his state thanks to an A&S Summer Research Fellowship.