Out of the Box: Virginia Untold: Certificates of Importation. Out of the Box, the blog of the archives of the Library of Virginia, has consistently been one of my favorite reads for the windows it offers into the state – er, commonwealth – of my birth. And, honestly, into the past of our nation. Today’s post, by Greg Crawford, is a good illustration of why.
What is both fascinating and revolting about the history of slavery (and its descendants, white supremacy and institutionalized racism) is the level of legal, statutory, bureaucratic, and judicial machinery required to keep the enslavement of human beings “orderly” and “civil.” The example in this post, certificates of importation, were a bureaucratic invention that sought to ensure compliance with the law barring importation of slaves for sale into Virginia. Said law was enacted in 1778, not for humanitarian reasons, but apparently to ensure that England and British ships would not profit from the slave trade during the Revolutionary War.
(It’s worth noting that the original draft of the bill would have explicitly linked the barring of importation of slaves to the suppression of slavery more broadly. The final language of the bill contained no such linkage.)
An exception in the 1778 law permitted slave owners permanently relocating to Virginia to import their slaves to the commonwealth, provided they swore an oath that they did not intend to sell any of them. The oath became part of a legal document, the certificate of importation, that provided names, ages, and physical descriptions of the slaves, where they were acquired, and from where they were being relocated. The certificate was filed in court. (The Library of Virginia is in the process of digitizing these court documents, and they’ve made a spreadsheet of the digitized records.) If a slave was illegally brought into the commonwealth, they could sue for their freedom; the presence of the certificate of importation was a closed door to a slave seeking to escape an unfair master, but failure to file the paperwork gave the slave grounds to file a freedom suit.
To summarize: slaves imported into Virginia had to have paperwork documented by a local magistrate containing an oath from their owner and filed in their county courthouse so that they were in compliance with a Revolutionary War era law preventing British profiteering, and the absence of such paperwork allowed a slave to sue for freedom. The amount of bureaucracy devoted to the peculiar institution, of which this is only a small piece, must have been completely mindboggling. And it gives me a renewed appreciation for the artifacts of history.