a neighbor entitled to assistance.

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The only circumstance under which a recipient of relief was not identified by first name was when the claim referred to a child. For example, an 1860 claim requested repayment for a “making one coffin for Wm Peilars child.”75 Although the children were seldom identified by name, this was a factor of their age, not their socioeconomic status. Furthermore, the emphasis on their family, through the naming of their parents or grandparents, identified them as a member of the community, as a neighbor entitled to assistance.
Individuals receiving outdoor relief and medical assistance were also referred to by name in the documents. For example, a claim from February 1, 1849 was paid for continuing “to furnish Mr. E Woods supplies at the rate of [$2.50] dollars per month from date until otherwise directed.”76 Similarly, a claim for medical care submitted by Dr. Joseph Edie requested payment for medical care for ten impoverished citizens, all of whom were identified by name except for one child, who was referred to as a named individual’s grandchild.77 It is significant that none of the extant claims for poor relief for this period even use the designation of “poor” or “pauper.” Whereas those terms can be found in the regular reports submitted to Richmond, they are entirely absent in the individual claims. The individual claims identify the recipients of relief by name only, except in the case of children, as noted above. Although impossible to discern with any certainty, the dichotomy between how administrators referred to the poor when writing to Richmond and when composing internal documents suggests that they may have adjusted their language to their audience; when discussing the poor amongst themselves they treated them as community members, but when dialoguing with state authorities they adopted the language of the larger community and were more likely to refer to them as “paupers.”
Much as they referred to individual poor relief recipients by name and without derogatory adjectives, Montgomery County officials also discussed the poor as a class in more respectful terms than other localities. Claims for payment to the teachers of poor children were titled: “The school commissioners of Montgomery County for tuition of poor children.”78 In 1846, the Overseers of the Poor processed an invoice of $3.61 to purchase paper and books “for the poor.”79 The use of the phrases “poor children” and “the poor,” absent any morally weighted adjectives, suggests that the education of these children was viewed as a valid governmental obligation. The children themselves were not devalued or deemed responsible for their own condition; they were simply a category of neighbors in need.
Similarly, the directives in the county’s Order Book regarding the establishment of a poor house do not contain any moral judgments in their language. The county began the process of establishing the house in 1829 with the appointment of three commissioners charged with locating a suitable tract of land for “erecting thereon a poor house for this county.”80 The court subsequently appointed three more commissioners who were “authorized to contract for the erection of comfortable log buildings on the tract of land.”81 In its itemizations for expenses for the fiscal year of 1829-1830, the court documented a payment of $5 to Creed Taylor for his services to “contract for suitable buildings for the use of the poor.”82 This language not only lacks moral judgment, it conveys a commitment to provide for the county’s poor, and a tacit acknowledgment that they are entitled to comfortable, suitable accommodations.
A comparison between poor relief practices in Montgomery County, Virginia and the rural, northern community of Seneca Falls, New York highlights the role of the neighbor-in-need philosophy on a local government’s treatment of their poor. In their study on Seneca Falls’ poor relief practices from 1830 to 1860, historians Glenn Altschuler and Jan Saltzgaber argued that an increase in immigration resulted in a decreased commitment to providing for the poor. As they concisely put it: “…they viewed the poor less and less as ‘theirs,’” and as a result, they were not willing to “accept communal responsibility for the welfare of those strangers.”83 The authors maintain that the influx of immigrants, coupled with the cause of that influx – a growing and industrializing economy – resulted in the fracturing of the social bonds which had previously informed poor relief efforts. The poor in Seneca Falls were no longer considered neighbors; they were now strangers.84
As Michael Katz has argued, the rise of industrialization, coupled with an increase in immigration, contributed to the breakdown of the “neighbors in need” philosophy of poor relief.85 However, in a locality such as Montgomery County, in which industrialization had not fully penetrated, and in which foreign immigration was minimal, the neighbor-in-need mentality was able to persist. When the Overseer of the Poor knew the recipient of poor relief personally, when he could recall that individual’s childhood and knew his family, it likely became more difficult to dismiss the recipient as lazy or morally deficient. If the Overseer had personal knowledge that the recipient fell on hard times due to an illness, or a downturn in the local economy, it would be easier to provide relief without moral condemnation. To put it another way, knowing the recipient of poor relief prior to his or her request for assistance made it more difficult to dismiss his humanity and view him solely as a pauper.
Whether they were providing shelter, food, medical care, or burial expenses, officials in Montgomery County took seriously their obligation to provide for their neighbors living on the edge of subsistence. Although they were mandated by law to do so, the documentary evidence suggests that they also did so willingly out of a sense of societal obligation. Whereas other localities throughout the country were pushing paupers into poorhouses in order to punish and reform them, Montgomery County was moving in the opposite direction, increasing its use of outdoor relief and using the poorhouse primarily for the disabled, the elderly, and women with children. Additionally, they were not merely providing food and housing – the bare minimum of subsistence – but were also providing medical care. To be sure, recipients of poor relief in Montgomery County still lived terribly difficult and uncomfortable lives, but their community leaders did not seem to add moral condemnation to the weight of challenges that they carried. Despite the national trend towards blaming the poor for their own condition, residents in this southern, rural community still adhered to the colonial-era philosophy that poverty was a natural part of life, and a community bore a responsibility to take care of poor residents who did not have family who could assist them.
Having established that Montgomery County provided poor relief out of a sense of governmental obligation, the reader may be tempted to presume that these services were only offered to white residents. After all, Montgomery County sat in the southwestern corner of a slave state and was home to over two hundred slave-owning families at the outbreak of the Civil War.86 Indeed, numerous scholars have argued that Southern poor relief excluded black citizens during the antebellum period. In her history of social welfare, Mimi Abramovitz argues that free blacks seldom received government assistance, instead turning to personal networks of family and friends. She further argues that “when they did enter the poor law system, mostly in the North, black men and women were treated as the most undeserving of the poor.”87 Historian Walter Trattner echoed Abramovitz’s conclusion, asserting that free blacks were “prohibited from receiving aid under most of the poor laws [and] were simply denied assistance.”88
Both Abromovitz and Trattner studied poor relief at the national level; what did historians of Southern poor relief have to say about the impact of race on relief services? Two prominent scholars in the field, Elna Green and Timothy Lockley, generally support the national historiography while providing additional context. Writing in 1999, Green cites Trattner in support of her claim that free blacks were generally denied poor relief and instead relied on informal mutual-assistance arrangements.89 Her next work on poor relief in Richmond, Virginia, however, provides a more nuanced analysis. Here she argues that free blacks did indeed receive relief, as evidenced by their admittance to the poorhouse, but their assistance was inferior to that received by white residents. The administrators’ main concern appeared to be segregating the black residents in separate facilities, not providing them adequate relief.90 Agreeing with Green’s later analysis, Timothy Lockley argues that free blacks did receive a modicum of poor relief even if it was inferior to the relief offered to their white neighbors. Lockley ties the inferior level of relief provided to free blacks with the “privilege of race” enjoyed by poor white residents. In his analysis, poor relief provided a means for the white elite to promote racial solidarity over class solidarity.91
The documentary evidence in Montgomery County suggests that, although Overseer of the Poor officials remained highly conscious of race while discharging their duties, they did not categorically deny relief to free black residents. Throughout the antebellum era, the county provided outdoor relief, indoor relief, medical care, and burial to free black residents. As was the case with white poor relief recipients, the officials generally referred to the black poor by name, albeit, often only by first name. The Overseer of the Poor reports which were submitted every year to Richmond divided the poor into four categories: “poor whites maintained at public charge,” “free blacks maintained at public charge,” “poor maintained at poor or work house,” and “poor boarded out” [Table 3]. In addition to listing total numbers, the reports for some years included addendums providing the names and races of the individuals in each group. Officials’ attention to categorizing poor relief recipients by race, as well as their practice of using the terms “free black” or “colored” when identifying black recipients in the records, suggests that race was a relevant factor in providing relief, but certainly not a disqualifying factor.
An examination of the Overseer of the Poor reports over the antebellum period illustrates the biracial nature of Montgomery County’s poor relief. An elderly black man identified only as “Paul” resided in the poorhouse for at least the five-year period of 1850-1855. The only facts about Paul left to us by history are that he was approximately 90 years old in 1850, and he was described as “unable to work” by the Overseer of the Poor.92 During the same period, a free black man named James Ligon was receiving outdoor relief.93 We know a little more about James; he was in his forties in 1860, and described as “5’8”, ‘very black,’ two small scars over his right eye, several small scars on the right hand, and had his two middle fingers of the right hand cut off. He was the son of Sarah, who was emancipated by deed from Robert Shanklin.”94 He had clearly fallen on hard times by 1851, and as such, was receiving outdoor relief from the county.
The historiography of poor relief references black residents of antebellum poorhouses, usually in the context of how communities attempted to segregate the poor within these institutions based on race, but references to free blacks receiving outdoor relief are far more elusive. It is therefore significant that for ten of the fourteen years for which records survive, outdoor relief was provided to at least one free black resident [Table 4]. Furthermore, the black recipients received a level of support comparable to that of their white neighbors. For the twelve months ending March 31, 1851, the county provided outdoor support to nine white and one black resident (Mr. Ligon). The average amount expended per person for the white residents was $23.77; the amount provided for Mr. Ligon’s care was much higher at $50. For the following calendar year, the average amount expended per person for the white residents was $18.03; for Mr. Ligon, $25.95 These numbers make clear that Mr. Ligon did not receive an inferior level of service due to his race.
“Remove Him to the Poorhouse:” Poor-Relief in Montgomery County, VA, 1830-1880

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