Emancipated slaves and their descendants moved in two directions: one group, usually those given training, experience, and money by a kind master, formed the basis for what soon became the black middle class. The other freedmen of color lived an outcast, neglected, and insecure existence. Their state was often more miserable than that of many slaves -- it was a state of existence somewhat similar to that of the least fortunate poor whites. Freedom, as an abstract principle, did not have concrete social class meaning in colonial Virginia. Realities belied Wecter's statement that "there were only two classes in America: indentured servants or slaves, and freemen." 52Next Page
A slave's chances of rising were not dependent upon his talents and abilities; they were personal and dependent upon the whims and leanings of his master. The house servants tended to form a social class among the slaves, one rung above the field slaves, as a class. But rising did not typically depend upon individual effort.
Indented servants. It was not among blacks but among the white servants, the redemptioners, that one would expect to find many persons rising above their former station. But the fate of the earlier servants, who soon lost the little hold they had attained on the ledge of yeomanry, and the fate of later lower class arrivals, bound or free, who found their one and only chance to escape utter misery in the misty blue hills, high and far to the west and south of the eastern shore, was an unhappy one. More details as to their lives and opportunities than has been given, however, are needed to complete the story of low status in Virginia and the neighboring colonies.
There were, at the time of their arrival, at least three types or classes of indented servants: those who came voluntarily, those who were "carried here against their will," 53 and those who were of middle or higher class standing, with education, background, and ambition, as have been described in an earlier chapter. This last-mentioned type came either voluntarily to escape some public shame or to get away from their old surroundings, or involuntarily as political prisoners. Ballagh, in writing about white servitude in the Colony of Virginia, says: "Many servants were besides this of better origin and education than the generality . . . . " 54 Wertenbaker, referring to indented servants, states: 55
Some were persons of culture, and, on rare occasions, of means . . . . There are many instances of persons of gentle blood becoming indentured servants to lawyers or physicians, in order to acquire a knowledge of those professions. Tutors were sometimes brought over from England under terms of indenture . . . . Several instances are recorded of gentlemen . . . who are spoke of as servants . . . .
These facts throw considerable light upon the statistics which go to show that in the first half century a scattering of servants are found in the Assembly and other places of honor. There is no way of knowing exactly whether or not these were persons with education and background.
Another factor affecting mobility is the much-discussed "fifty acres of free land for every servant." Were these granted to each servant at the expiration of his term of servitude? It seems certain that at the very beginning, in some colonies other than Virginia, this practice was carried out. But emphasis has been placed too heavily upon the likelihood of such an eventuality. Wertenbaker discredits the notion:
There existed in England a widespread impression that the servant, upon securing his freedom, was entitled by law to fifty acres of land. This appears to have been a mistake arising from a misapprehension of the nature of the headright, which belonged not to the servant himself, but to the person who paid for his transportation.
Misery among the poor whites. Many descriptions have been written about the miserable conditions prevailing among the poor whites of Virginia and her neighbors. Since the vast majority of the immigrants to Virginia were servants, they can correctly be considered the ancestors of these poor white families.
52. Dixon Wecter, The Saga of American Society, A Record of Social Aspiration, 1607 - 1937 (New York, 1937) p. 14.
53. Beard and Beard, op. cit., p. 103.
54. James Curties Ballagh, White Servitude in the Colony of Virginia (Baltimore, 1895) p. 83.
55. Wertenbaker, op. cit. (24), p. 163.