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Slave Patrols

For 250 years, American law worked to reduce black people to a class of untouchables and raise all white men to the level of citizens. In 1650, Virginia mandated that “all persons except Negroes” were to carry arms.

Most southern militias were created to put down the most dread of all horrors, servile insurrection. The threat of a servile insurrection had always been a constant fear among slaveholders. To keep slaves in slavery militias were essential and they needed to be armed. Thus the fundamental “right” assured by the Second Amendment.

Responding to demographic shifts and technological innovations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the states continually adjusted its laws concerning fugitives. These laws initially applied to white indentured servants, the most numerous of all un-free laborers. Yet by the nineteenth century antebellum years, the character of un-free labor shifted radically and racially, from white to black. Thus, the focus of laws shifted as well. By the mid-nineteenth century, laws governing the lives and movement of un-free laborers had grown increasingly strict, in an attempt to control black slaves.

The advent of institutionalized slavery in the late-1670s brought with it the creation of parameters to control the enslaved population. By 1676, " An Act Relating to Servants and Slaves" (Assembly Proceedings, 1676, W H & L, p. 102) restricted freedom of movement for both slaves and indentured servants to ten miles beyond their respective masters' plantations. Not so much intending to deter slaves from fleeing, colonial legislators hoped the law would discourage non-slaves from assisting those on the run, while compelling non-slaveholding whites, specifically, to aid in the retrieval of those slaves that did run.

Presumably, white citizens felt both burdened and empowered. While laws compelled all white citizens to aid in the capture of a runaway, it also gave white citizens legalistic superiority over non-whites in particular. Any white could legally stop a person on the road or in town and demand to see documentary proof that the person was not an absconded servant or slave. Consequently, these laws required all free persons (white and black) to purchase documents from county clerks asserting their free status, or risk being jailed. Citizens might gain handsomely from these police powers, as rewards of at least two hundred pounds of tobacco were awarded for successfully capturing runaways. Laws also required sheriffs, constables, and local authorities to post notices in public places of suspected fugitives nabbed.

The early 1720s drew Maryland lawmakers to address the development of fugitive encampments in the "backwoods" toward the west of colonial settlement in the vicinity of the Monocacy River. Similar encampments - likely, however, to be smaller and less established - existed elsewhere in the state. The problem of fugitive encampments persisted to such a point that lethal force proved acceptable in dealing with such "out-lying" blacks from the woods. If authorities killed a slave in such an action, the master would be compensated by the state. From this point forward, homicide was justifiable if it occurred during pursuit of fugitive slaves.

In 1842, the novelist Charles Dickens, on a book tour of the United States, saw a link between the sheer savagery of slave ownership and what he called the cowardly practice of carrying pistols or daggers or both. Dickens remarked that "let it be said and known: "We owe this change to Republican Slavery. These are the weapons of Freedom. With sharp points and edges such as these, Liberty in America hews and hacks her slaves; or, failing that pursuit, her sons devote them to a better use, and turn them on each other." ... the worst deformity and ugliness of slavery are at once the cause and the effect of the reckless license taken by these freeborn outlaws?"

According to Tony Platt, author of Crime and Punishment in the United States, “The genesis of the modern police organization in the South is the ‘Slave Patrol.’” That assessment is further corroborated by criminal justice researchers K. B. Turner, David Giacopassi and Margaret Vandive.

The strategies of police in dealing with minorities were different from those in dealing with others, the changes in police strategies in minority communities have been more problematic, and therefore the beneficial consequences of those changes for minorities have been less noticeable.

The fact that the legal order not only countenanced but sustained slavery, segregation, and discrimination for most of the Nation's history - and the fact that the police were bound to uphold that order - set a pattern for police behavior and attitudes toward minority communities that has persisted until the present day. That pattern included the idea that minorities had fewer civil rights, that the task of the police was to keep them under control, and that the police had little responsibility for protecting them from crime within their communities.

During the political era, from the introduction of the "new police" in the 1840's until the early 1900's, American police derived both their authority and resources from local political leaders. This account is based largely on an analysis of policing in the cities of the northeastern United States, mostly following the Civil War and Reconstruction, and omitting the importance of racial and social conflicts in the origination of American police departments.

American modern-style policing is a system of law enforcement involving a permanent agency employing full-time officers who engage in continuous patrol of fixed beats to prevent crime. Many cities with elaborate police arrangements were those with large slave populations where white masters lived in dread of possible black uprisings. Charleston, Savannah, and Richmond provided for combined foot and mounted patrols to prevent slaves from congregating and to repress any attacks upon the racial and social status quo. In Charleston, for example, police costs constituted the largest item in the municipal budget.

There is a strong argument to be made that the first American modern-style policing occurred in the "slave patrols," developed by the white slave owners as a means of dealing with runaways. Believing that their militia was not capable of dealing with the perceived threat, the colonial State governments of the South enacted slave patrol legislation during the 1740's.

In South Carolina: "Foreasmuch [sic] as many late horrible and barbarous massacres have been actually committed and many more designed, on the white inhabitants of this Province, by negro slaves, who are generally prone to such cruel practices, which makes it highly necessary that constant patrols should be established."

Neighboring Georgians were also concerned with maintaining order among their slaves. The preamble to their 1757 law establishing and regulating slave patrols contends: ". ..it is absolutely necessary for the Security of his Majesty's Subjects in this Province, that Patrols should be established under proper Regulations in the settled parts thereof, for the better keeping of Negroes and other Slaves in Order and prevention of any Cabals, Insurrections or other Irregularities amongst them."

Such statutes were eventually enacted in all southern States. In Georgia, all urban white men aged sixteen to sixty, with the exception of ministers of religion, were to conduct such patrol "on every night throughout the year." In the countryside, such patrols were to "visit every Plantation within their respective Districts once in every Month" and whenever they thought it necessary, "to search and examine all Negro-Houses for offensive weapons and Ammunition." They were also authorized to enter any "disorderly tipling-House, or other Houses suspected of harbouring, trafficking or dealing with Negroes" and could inflict corporal punishment on any slave found to have left his owner's property without permission.

These "slave patrols" had full power and authority to enter any plantation and break open Negro houses or other places when slaves were suspected of keeping arms; to punish runaways or slaves found outside their plantations without a pass; to whip any slave who should affront or abuse them in the execution of their duties; and to apprehend and take any slave suspected of stealing or other criminal offense, and bring him to the nearest magistrate.

Understandably, the actions of such patrols established an indelible impression on both the whites who implemented this system and the blacks who were the brunt of it.

Howell Meadoes Henry wrote in 1914, "Slavery was not only an economic and industrial system, and as such felt to be a burden by the non-slaveholder; but more than that, it was a gigantic police system, which the poor man in the up-country as well as the wealthy planter in the lowlands did not know how to replace. To put the negro on an equality with the white man politically, if considered at all, was regarded as madness.

"Almost from the very first the slave population presented the problem of a police control that would suit the needs of the community and hold in check this irresponsible and often dangerous part of Southern society. For the more serious crimes methods of trial and punishment were provided. But for the general good-ordering and home-keeping of the slave some more exacting method must be employed than mere punishment by a court which the negro very little understood. If the slave had been unhampered in his general movements he would have been rendered capable of insurrection, the greatest possible danger to be feared from the African population.

"It was evident that there must be some regulation to permit and authorize this if there was to be a general prohibition of wandering. The rule was that no slave should be found off his master's plantation, particularly at night, without a written pass from his master, or in company with some white person, even a child ten years of age, who could vouch for the cause of his absence. The substance of the pass was an order to any person or patrolman to permit the slave "to pass and repass" from a given hour on a certain day to a given hour on some following day....

" The free movement of the slaves concerned not only the immediate owner but every other individual in the community as well, for it afforded opportunity to the slave to instigate and co-operate in insurrectionary schemes; also it afforded opportunity for stealing ...

"The evolution of the patrol system is interesting. The need of keeping the slaves from roving was felt from the very first. Among the earliest of the colonial acts in 1686 is one* that gave any person the right to apprehend, properly chastise, and send home any slave who might be found off his master's plantation without a ticket. This plan was not altogether effective, and in 1690s it was made the duty of all persons under penalty of forty shillings to arrest and chastise any slave out of his home plantation without a proper ticket. This plan of making it everybody's business to punish wandering slaves seems to have been sufficient at least for a time....

" The act of 1721 merged the patrol service definitely into the militia organization, making it a part of the military system, and devolving upon the military authority its arrangement and maintenance. This feature was continued until 1860. ... Another apparently unfortunate provision permitted any person to act in the capacity of a patrolman in administering punishment if at any time he should find a slave out of his home place. This probably led to abuses and was finally abolished in 1839....

"To correct the strolling slave, allowed as a privilege to the white man at first, was soon afterwards made his duty. As a precaution against disturbances from the negroes in times of public danger when the number of the white settlers was small a detachment of the militia was authorized "to ride" the districts. The same kind of policing in times of peace was found to be necessary as early as 1734. The practicability of the use of civilians for this purpose under a military organization known as the "beat company" was soon demonstrated. Limitations of the service to freeholders with compensation were removed in 1819 and all white males were made liable for duty without compensation. Apparently evasion of duty was common; disorderliness of the patrol was unfortunately frequent; at times interference with the patrol in the performance of their duties occurred....

The Slave Patrol, which had been established in 1753, became steadily a more permanent institution as the people became more convinced of the necessity of keeping slavery unassailed. In 1779 North Carolina required making a general search once a month and to report to the County Court. Slaves off their masters' plantations on Sunday were to be arrested, unless they had passes or were in the company of a white man.

In 1794 it was provided by North Carolina that the patrol should be appointed by the County Court whenever it should think necessary. No more than six men should be appointed to the district of each militia captain. The patrol was to be in office one year, was to have stipulated fees and one-half of the money from fines under this act of 1794, and was to be exempt from road and jury duty. Two patrolmen going together were to cover a district at least once a fortnight. They might whip — not to exceed fifteen lashes — slaves found off their master's land without permission.

In 1802 there was an alarm over a reported slave insurrection in Bertie and adjoining counties. This induced the North Carolina Assembly to provide a still more efficient patrol. The County Court was now authorized to appoint patrolers in such numbers and under such rules as it might think necessary, the patrolers retaining the powers and privileges conferred by the act of 1794. To support the patrol the County Court was given the authority to levy a special tax of one shilling on each black poll. In the same year the militia of Gates, Pasquotank, and Camden Counties were constituted a patrol. The captains were directed to divide their companies into squads of four or five men who were to search their respective neighborhoods once in three weeks and to whip slaves found at large.

No further change was made in the North Carolina patrol till 1830 when the County Court was given authority to appoint, if it saw fit, a Patrol Committee of three persons in each captain's district who might appoint as many patrolers as they thought necessary, provided that this should not prevent the County Court from appointing patrols as they saw fit. The patrol was now given large powers of arrest.

The patrolers were enjoined to visit suspected places, to disperse assemblages of slaves, to be diligent in arresting runaways, to detect thefts, and to report persons who traded with slaves. The patrol, or any two of them, should "have such powers as may be necessary to a proper discharge of the duties herein enjoined," ran the law.

If a negro who was being whipped was insolent to them he might be further punished not to exceed thirty-nine lashes in all. The Patrol Committee was given power to discharge patrolers and to appoint others in the vacancies. To refuse to serve on the patrol was punished by a fine of $20, to go to the support of the patrol, and in 1835 it was enacted that persons who refused or neglected to perform the duties of this office should be fined $25.

There was more than one reason why masters did not want their slaves to meet at slave-meetings about the neighborhood. It afforded opportunity for concocting mischief; and it demoralized the slaves by bringing them into contact with the worst negroes of the community, by keeping them up till late at night, and by giving them a desire for idleness.

Accordingly the laws were always against such slavemeetings. In 1779 it was enacted that an ordinary keeper who entertained slaves against their master's will should forfeit his license. In 1794 North Carolina declared that no person should permit any negroes, bond or free, to meet on his property for drinking or dancing on penalty of fine of £10.

The Ku Klux Klan is said to have originated in Tennessee in 1866, with General Nathan Bedford Forest was reputed to have been at the head of the Klsn organization. These whites believed the nocturnal perambulations of the freedmen, their habit of running away from labor contracts, the large amount of petit larceny among them at this time, the abandonment of their crops to attend political meetings, their participation in the loyal leagues, and their alleged insolence to former masters created a necessity for some kind of restraint. The Kuklux organization was designed to accomplish this purpose.

In its beginnings, it was similar to the old slave patrol, and the whites alleged that it was to serve as a sort of offset to the Loyal Leagues. These were secret political organizations among the colored people, and were generally organized and presided over by their white allies. Meetings were usually held at night in some out-of-the-way place, and were harangued by white Republican speakers. These organizations solidified the black vote, for there was a league in every community, and every colored man was a member.

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Page last modified: 29-11-2017 19:30:22 ZULU