Many like to think that the Civil War was a strict divide of north and south. Those in the north believed in the power of the Union and that slavery was morally wrong. Those in the south believed in minimal government interference in state matters and endorsed slavery. However, the truth is far more complex and there are gray areas splattered throughout this common view of (forgive the analogy) black and white politics.
One example rests in the person of Mary Berkeley Minor Blackford, a woman born and bred in Fredericksburg, Virginia society, who staunchly opposed the institution of slavery. Her example is one of many that defies this modern interpretation of north and south principles.
Mary was born December 2nd, 1802 to John Minor and his second wife, Lucy Landon Carter Minor. She was the only daughter of eight children, and was intensely close to her mother throughout her life and especially after her father died when she was thirteen. She received a fantastic education for a girl of the era and blossomed into an influential and formidable woman in her community.
On October 12th, 1825, she married William Blackford, the son of a prominent iron manufacturer and a reputable lawyer in his own right. Like Mary, he was a native of Fredericksburg. Together, they were deeply devout members of the Episcopal church. Despite all these accolades to their family and reputation, the family was never overly wealthy. In some situations, William had to ask his own parents for money to support his family. But what they lacked in money, they flourished in deeds.
Mary grew up in the same environment as Jane Beale (whom I’ve written about before). Both were religious and both cherished the values of family and community. However, when it came to the idea of slavery, they stood on opposite sides of the spectrum. While Jane believed that it was God’s will for the black race to be subservient to the white man, Mary saw different. She witnessed the brutality and inhumanity of slavery. She abhorred the institution and sought to do her part in ending it.
Though she was a little fish in a big pond, Mary and her likeminded friends of Fredericksburg got to work. In 1829, she founded a unique organization called the Fredericksburg and Falmouth Female Auxiliary to the American Colonization Society. While this was a far cry from total emancipation, it had its foundations in an idea that many Americans felt they could get behind. The idea of Colonization was that the black population of America would emigrate back to their ancestral home and begin a free life in Africa. This differed from the idea of emancipated slaves continuing their lives in America where they would face prejudice and hostilities from the white population that worked to enslave them for centuries.
Within just a year, Mary and the auxiliary of women distributed tracts of land in Liberia to freed blacks and recently freed slaves. They also raised over $500 (nothing to sneeze at in the 19th century) and recruited many notable members such as former first-lady, Dolly Madison. The ladies worked hard to spread the word about their efforts and even published their annual report, “Report of the Board of Managers,” in the Methodist Christian Sentinel. In 1832, Mary went as far as to pen a journal documenting her strong opposition to slavery and its evils in a book called, “Notes Illustrative of the Wrongs of Slavery”. In it, she described the horrors she witnessed as a citizen trapped in a slaveholding community like Fredericksburg. She was particularly influenced by living so close to a slave trader’s jail while growing up. She was also twice threatened by the grand jury for teaching slaves to read the Bible.
While she had the backing of her family and friends, including one of her brothers who went to Liberia as a missionary, her husband didn’t share in her beliefs. He approved of Colonization, but only as a means to rid the country of the freed blacks that he saw as a blemish upon the community. The Blackford family, in fact, owned a few slaves to help Mary with the daily housework. This, however, was seen as a necessary evil. In the first fifteen years of their marriage, Mary gave birth to eight children (Lucy Landon, William Willis, Charles Minor, Benjamin Lewis, Launcelot Minor, Eugene, and Mary Isabella). With each child, her health and bodily vigor declined. Mary was stricken with severe back pain that debilitated her from both her duties as a wife and her radical ambitions to reform society. I’d imagine that though slaves were kept in the Blackford household, they were treated well.
The auxiliary received a facelift in 1834 when Mary became discouraged by the “unaccountable apathy… benumbing the public mind”. She renamed the auxiliary to Ladies’ Society of Fredericksburg and Falmouth, for the Promotion of Female Education in Africa. Its attentions refocused from Colonization to the betterment of education for those black girls and young women already in Liberia, or those who had been sent to Liberia from America by the auxiliary itself. She recruited Presbyterian missionaries to go to the country and give the girls the kind of education she had been privileged to in her childhood.
All of that changed in 1846. In the background, William Blackford had been bettering his own career as well by editing and publishing a Whig newspaper. Between 1842 to 1845, he served as chargé d’affaires to New Granada in Bogotá. This left Mary alone to care for their many children and also juggle her auxiliary, further evidence that slave helpers were needed around the home. When he returned, he uprooted his family and moved them from their home in Fredericksburg to Lynchburg. There, he edited another Whig newspaper for several years and then served as cashier of the Exchange Bank of Lynchburg. The distance from her auxiliary headquarters curtailed her involvement in the reform movement.
The coming storm of secession made family matters worse for Mary. Her husband grew more sectional in his beliefs by the 1850s and much of her family had sided with the southern cause for states rights and the preservation of slavery. “To see my sons arrayed against one part of their country, our own ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ and in such a cause,” she wrote to her brother in January 1861, “is a sorrow that makes me feel the grave is the only place for me.”
Her involvement in the American Colonization Society never stopped. Though the world she had known began to crumble around her, she never faltered in her faith that all people deserved freedom. In her journal, she writes, “Think of what it is to be a slave! To be treated not as a man but as a personal chattel, a thing that may be bought or sold, to have no right to the fruits of your own labour, no right to your own wife and children… think of this, and all the nameless horrors that are concentrated in that one word Slavery.”
Her husband passed in April of 1864. By then, her children had grown and she was left alone at the age of 61. She moved to Alexandria to live with her son, Launcelot Minor Blackford – named after her compatriot brother who became a missionary – and carried out her final days there. She died in September 15, 1896, and was buried in Spring Hill Cemetery in Lynchburg. Her legacy remains forever as a glowing example of what one person can do to change the lives of many and end the suffering of a people.
Her biography, “Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory” was written by one of her grandsons about her tireless efforts and commitment to the cause of emancipation and Colonization. She was an inspiration not only to her community, but also to her family, and it shows in the subtitle of the biography “The Story of a Virginia Lady Mary Berkeley Minor Blackford Who Taught Her Sons to Hate Slavery and to Love the Union.”
Tarter, B., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Mary Berkeley Minor Blackford (1802–1896). (2017, August 8). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Blackford_Mary_Berkeley_Minor_1802-1896.
Letters between Launcelot Minor Blackford (son) and his mother, Mary: https://pages.shanti.virginia.edu/Early_Life_at_UVA/launcelot-minor-blackford/
Blackford, L. Minor. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. Harvard University Press, 1954.