Virginia Tech history professor Dan Thorp has just published “Facing Freedom: An African American Community in Virginia from Reconstruction to Jim Crow” (Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, December, 2017, 294 pages).
It is a unique and special occasion for this local historian to be able to report the publication of a full-fledged history book devoted entirely to Montgomery County written by a mainstream professional American historian.
The two recent books “Virginia’s Montgomery County” (edited by Mary E. Lindon and published by the Montgomery Museum in 2009) and “Voices from Eastern Montgomery County” (compiled by Fran and Don Poole and published by the Meadowbrook Museum in 2012) are both multiple author works, with many of the essayists being amateurs like this writer.
Thorp’s book tells the story of the African American community in Montgomery County from the time of emancipation in April 1865 at the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the Jim Crow era in the early years of the twentieth century.
The book comes equipped with the full apparatus of modern historical scholarship and includes 49 pages of endnotes, and a 14-page bibliography.
The principle themes of the book, covered in its six main chapters, include the communities that black people formed, how they labored for a living and sought to acquire land, the many schools they opened, their churches and their role in local government.
Thorp points out that few previous historians have paid much attention to the African American community in Montgomery County, and that the county’s traditional historical image and reputation derive more from its frontier roots and its mountain culture.
Historians of the emancipation period have produced many useful broad-scale and sweeping works that describe black Southerners’ experiences in the decades immediately following the Civil War and after the abolition of slavery.
Thorp’s work in contrast is a single community study. It focuses narrowly on one county and complements the preceding broad-scale work with a wonderfully well-documented local investigation.
Montgomery County was created in 1776 and over the years has generated and preserved a large body of information such as deeds, wills, criminal and civil court records, indentures, election records, censuses, and records of births, deaths and marriages.
In addition, to courthouse records, Thorp examined business, fraternal organization, church, military, pension and school records, along with private correspondence and contemporary newspapers. Especially valuable records came from the Freedmen’s Bureau and various philanthropic agencies active in the county during and after Reconstruction. Even a few oral histories have survived.
From these diverse sources Thorp has constructed a remarkably complete picture of African American life in Montgomery County.
The arrival of the Virginia and Tennessee railroad in Christiansburg in 1854 opened open eastern markets for the agricultural products of Montgomery County. In consequence, the demand for enslaved labor jumped.
The 1850 census recorded 1,471 enslaved persons in the county while the 1860 census recorded 2,219, for an increase of 51 percent. In 1860 21 percent of the county’s inhabitants were enslaved.
During the 1850s, slavery became well established in the county but had not yet become the all-encompassing institution that dominated Tidewater Virginia. Neither was the county’s African-American community so large as to provoke white fear of its newly enfranchised citizens.
Thorp concludes: “To be sure, racism and racial discrimination ran through every element of life in Montgomery County between the end of the Civil War and the dawn of the twentieth century. African Americans there endured a range of indignities and restrictions — both formal and informal — on their personal, political, social, and economic lives. But the racism evident in Montgomery County during these years was less virulent and less violent than that found in many other parts of the South. And in spite of those indignities and restrictions, African Americans in the county had begun to make lives for themselves and their children.”
Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of Southwest Virginia.