AN exhibit now in progress at the Valentine Museum, Richmond, Va., ``In Bondage and Freedom,'' casts new light on the nature of the black population in Richmond before the Civil War. The exhibit counters the stereotype of black antebellum life as lived on plantations, and focuses on the urban professional and domestic occupations of free blacks. The city, at that time one of the 20 largest in the country, was a commercial center, an important port, and a manufacturing center. Free blacks, though only 10 percent of the total population, had a vital role in the city's economy.
Thousands of slaves were hired out by the year for factory work and lived in Richmond unsupervised, often as boarders in the homes of free blacks. Blacks were also fishermen and boat operators, blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers, barbers, seamstresses, midwives, and dentists.
One benevolent employer was Gen. Joseph R. Anderson, who headed the Tredegar Iron Works, built in 1836 and the most important industrial plant in Richmond before and during the Civil War.
Among the Tredegar employees were the father and grandfather of Francis Foster who is a Richmond dentist and local historian. ``The happiest people in the city were those who worked for General Anderson,'' he says, ``both free blacks and slaves.
There was an atmosphere of trust and appreciation, and disloyalty was unknown. Joseph Anderson was the type of person who encouraged thrift and the eventual purchase of the slaves' freedom. His family were those who worked for him, and the lowliest employee had as much access to him as the Governor of Virginia.''
Gilbert Hunt, a slave who eventually purchased his own freedom and ultimately owned slaves himself, figures prominently in the exhibition. Born into slavery in 1780, in King William County, Hunt was sent to Richmond to learn carriagemaking. He later learned the blacksmithing trade as well. He worked for the US Army in Norfolk in the War of 1812, making carriages for cannons and grappling hooks for boarding vessels at Norfolk.
In 1829 Hunt was able to buy his freedom. He then emigrated to Liberia, found he did not like the country, and returned to Richmond, where he lived out his life as a prominent member of the black community and deacon of the First African Baptist Church.
Hunt is best remembered for his courage during the Richmond Theater Fire of 1811, which he recalled later in an autobiographical pamphlet, quoted in the catalog: ``I had just returned from worship at the Baptist Church and was about sitting down to supper when I was startled by the cry that the theater was on fire. My wife's mistress called to me and begged me to hasten to the theater, and if possible, save her only daughter - a young lady who had been teaching me my book every night and whom I loved very much.... I ... got a stepladder and placed it against the walls of the burning building.... I looked up and saw Dr. McCaw standing near one of the top windows and calling to me to catch the ladies as he handed them down.... By this means we got all the ladies out of this portion of the house.... the doctor ... jumped from one of the windows ... I rushed to him and bore him to a place of safety.''
The ownership of slaves for commercial reasons was rare, according to Professor Philip Schwarz, Chairman of the History Department at Virginia Commonwealth University, who has written extensively on the subject of free blacks who owned slaves. Frequently this practice was, as he put it, ``fraternal and protective,'' because, once freed, slaves were required to leave the state.
One part of the exhibit focuses on hearth and home. The extensive kinship networks among free and slave blacks were the linchpin of the black community.
The curators of the exhibit, Marie Tyler-McGraw and Gregg Kimball, suspected this would be the case, but it was not confirmed until they examined the 1820 United States Census, which listed residences of free blacks, many of whom had slave boarders.
As they express it in the catalog, ``opportunities for future success were tied up with family and friends ... kinship networks were vital.'' Kimball says that a key point in the domestic scene was the revision of earlier assumptions that slaves and free blacks were separate communities. ``In reality, they were tightly mingled in family communities, homes, and churches; there was no caste of free blacks as such.''
Rural slaves who had been hired out in Richmond, to generate income for their masters, frequently boarded with their free black relatives. The curators quote a 1975 study suggesting that ``the boarding of kin and non-kin was a prime factor in personal survival and the maintenance of community ties.''
One of the most satisfying aspects of working on the exhibition, says Tyler-McGraw, was ``when we realized how much the interconnections among blacks did depend on a sense of family, in part because industrialization came later to the south, which had a rural base, in contrast to the more mobile north.
Blacks chose last names fairly early and kept track of cousins, even remote ones; the urban relatives often became models for the rural slave boarders. They would begin to see how, by taking on overtime work, they too could purchase their freedom. It is thought that boarders paid about 50 to 75 cents a week for room and meals, but of course this figure is meaningless except in terms of the whole economy.''
Children of free blacks frequently lived as apprentices in the homes of carpenters, coopers, and shoemakers, as well as barbers. ``We also know,'' says Tyler-McGraw,'' that well-to-do free blacks were expected to take in a few children who needed a home, even if they were not related - to use some of their excess funds. This was the case with barbers, for instance; they were very well off.''
The reconstructed boarder's bedroom in the home of Amanda Cousins, a free black seamstress, is one of the most interesting displays in the exhibition. She provided a home for her cousin's two orphaned children and accumulated an unusual amount of property. The curators were guided in their reconstruction of the room by the inventory in her will. ``There seemed,'' says Tyler-McGraw, ``to be a downstairs room where someone else was living.'' The inventory of her possessions included a watch, a gold chain, a cameo breast pin, a marbletop table, a marbletop bureau, a hair sofa, a bedstead and two mattresses, and an oil can.
There were often three generations of a family, including newlyweds, living together. The usual pattern was for married couples, during the years they were bearing children, to live in single residences and, as the children left, to take in aged relatives and other boarders.
The exhibit contains a number of photographs of the exteriors of free black houses. In 1860, at least 71 free blacks held property valued at $1,000 or more. These were often ``shotgun houses,'' one story high and one room wide with rooms built directly behind each other, while the front porches reflected an African influence.
The exhibition will run through Sept. 13. It is at the historic Wickham-Valentine House, built in 1812 and a National Historic Landmark.