• Pages

  • Categories

  • Editors

Tag Archives: freedom suits

- From Lancaster to Lunenburg: Betty Chapman’s Story in Virginia Untold


Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants, oil painting by Agostino Brunias, Dominica, c. 1764–1796. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1788, the Virginia General Assembly reformed the state judicial courts in order alleviate congestion in the General Court, which had caused unreasonable delays in the adjudication of common law cases such as repayment of debts, slander, land disputes, and fraud. They divided the Commonwealth into eighteen district courts, each composed of several counties, plus the district of Kentucky. The Brunswick County District Court heard cases originating in the counties of Brunswick, Greensville, Lunenburg, and Mecklenburg until 1809 when the Superior Court of Law replaced the district courts. The Library of Virginia has scanned district court suits involving enslaved and free African Americans heard in the Brunswick County courthouse and made them available through Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative.

Two suits, William McTyiere [McTyre] William v. John Ussory, Jr, 1798 and Betty Chapman, etc. vs. William McTyre, 1800 found in the Brunswick County District Court records tell the story of Betty Chapman. Both suits papers describe her as a “mulatto” living with her family in Lunenburg County. However, her story really begins in the mid-1750s in Lancaster County. Her mother, Winny Chapman, was a free white woman who lived in the home of Robert McTyre. While living there, Winny gave birth to Betty and a sister named Milly, who was also of mixed-race parentage. Betty and Milly grew up in a community where their neighbors regarded … read more »

Posted in Local Records Blog Posts, Virginia Untold
Also tagged in: , , ,
1 Comment
Share |

- The Cost of Freedom: A Campbell County Story


 Illus. in: The Child's Anti-Slavery Book..., New York, [1860], frontispiece. Library of Congress.

The Campbell County court ordered the sale of Louisa Alexander and her daughter, Eliza, because as enslaved persons, Virginia law considered them part of Louisa’s deceased husband’s estate. After William Alexander, Sr., a free person of color, died, John P. White sought payment of a debt that he claimed Mr. Alexander owed him. The Campbell County chancery cause Louisa Alexander & etc. vs.  John P. White, 1852-017, lays out the Alexanders’ tale.

Louisa told a different version of her life story. She called White’s claim of a debt owed by her husband fraudulent. She said that for many years she and Eliza had also been free persons of color. Louisa claimed that she and William had moved to Maryland, lived there for a while, and then moved back to Wythe County, Virginia, before his death. Louisa and Eliza then moved to Campbell County. The Campbell County sheriff, on White’s word, had already advertised their sale to the highest bidder at auction. Establishing their freedom became an urgent matter.

An injunction was filed on her behalf to halt the sale until the suit could be settled. Louisa further claimed that she had never been her husband’s property, but had been sold to William Alexander, Jr. Young William then carried her and her daughter into the state of Maryland and sold them to James Selden, contrary … read more »

Posted in Chancery Court Blog Posts, Local Records Blog Posts
Also tagged in: , ,
Leave a comment
Share |

- What a Difference a Day Makes: Serendipity in the Reading Room


1834 woodcut depicting the kidnapping of a freeman, Library of Congress.

The Library of Virginia employs both reference archivists and processing archivists. Reference archivists work exclusively with the public—the Library’s front line. Processing archivists work behind-the-scenes to arrange, conserve, and describe the collections—whether private papers, state records, or local government materials. Large-scale gatherings such as conferences afford the Library’s archivists an opportunity to work together, as it is all hands on deck for major events.  In October 2015, the Afro-American Historical Genealogical Society (AAHGS) held its 36th annual national conference in Richmond.  The Library of Virginia hosted AAHGS members for several formal and informal events during the conference.

While volunteering with the reference staff during the conference, I had a chance meeting with one of the Library’s long-time patrons, James Bundick.  Mr. Bundick resides in Philadelphia but is researching his family in Accomack County, Virginia.  He traveled for years to the Accomack County courthouse for his research, but now he and his wife are happily ensconced at the Library. While making copies of chancery related documents for his research, I introduced myself. I then proceeded to tell him about a story that I had discovered a few weeks earlier while processing Accomack County chancery causes. Given the coincidence of the same last name, I felt that there was a relationship between him and the individual in the story.

There is a debt suit, Jacob Warner read more »

- A Will without a Way: An Amherst County Freedom Suit


Title: Personal recolletions of the war, Illus. in: Harper's Weekly, v. 33 (1866). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Sometimes a will is not worth the paper it’s written on. Too often, people go through the trouble of creating a formal last will and testament only to have their desires ignored. The chances for dispute or contestation are even greater when there is opportunity for financial gain, as was the case of a 19th century man who wanted a better life for his slaves.

Samuel Gist listed in his will specific instructions for how his enslaved people should be treated after his demise. The will filed in the City of Richmond noted that Gist’s land would be sold and the enslaved people emancipated and taken to Ohio. In all, between 80 and 100 enslaved men and women gained freedom in 1819 and relocated with the assistance of William Hickman as dictated in the Gist will.  The men and women affected must have been overjoyed as Gist’s will created a way to escape from bondage. Yet all did not share the enjoyment.

At the time the move to Ohio, an enslaved women named Sarah was away from the Gist estate, living with her husband’s owner, George P. Luck. Luck had sold Sarah’s husband, leaving her with eight children between the ages of 18 months and 19 years, and a ninth baby on the way. To make matters worse, Luck was in debt, and unbeknownst to … read more »

Posted in Chancery Court Blog Posts, Local Records Blog Posts
Also tagged in: , , ,
6 Comments
Share |

- Flora’s Plight: A Montgomery County Freedom Suit

This is part one of a two part post on a fascinating freedom suit discovered during the Montgomery County Circuit Court Records Project. Part two of the story will be published next week.


Slave Sale At Christiansburg (Va) by Lewis Miller.

Women had more to lose in the system of slavery. Saying this is not in any way meant to downplay the pernicious effects of slavery on the lives of men. However, at least in the slave system of the U.S. South, women ensnared within slavery saw their children and, if they lived long enough, their grandchildren caught in a chain of matrilineal descent predicated on the bondage status of the mother. Conversely, if one could prove that a woman was unjustly or illegally forced into slavery, she and her descendants had much to gain. The story of Flora and her daughters, Cena and Unis, makes public the double bind experienced by female slaves in the antebellum South. Their story also reveals the ongoing claims to freedom made by Flora and her family over sixty years, across three states, and throughout multiple counties in Virginia.

Flora, an African American later held as a slave in Montgomery County, Virginia, was born in the late 1750s in either Massachusetts or Connecticut. In the late 1770s Flora married “Exeter, a Negro man of Southwick” [MA], a marriage recorded by Reverend John Theodore Graham on 26 … read more »

- To Be Sold: Hester Jane Carr’s Story


The Patriot (London), 7 November 1836.

This is the last in a series of four blogs related to the “To Be Sold” exhibit which opens on October 27 at the Library of Virginia. Each post will be based on court cases found in LVA’s Local Records collection and involving slave traders. These suits provide insight into the motivation of individuals to get into the slave trading business as well as details on how they carried out their operations. Even more remarkably, these records document stories of enslaved individuals purchased in Virginia and taken hundreds of miles away by sea and by land to be sold in the Deep South.  Today’s blog focuses on the experiences of slaves bought and sold by Richard R. Beasley and William H. Wood–experiences conveyed in Lunenburg County Chancery Cause, 1860-026, Christopher Wood, etc. vs. Executor of William H. Wood and Petersburg (Va.) Judgments 1837 May, Hester Jane Carr vs. Richard R. Beasley.

As shared in last week’s blog, Richard R. Beasley and William H. Wood formed a partnership to purchase slaves in Virginia and sell them for a profit in Mississippi and Louisiana. Following the death of Wood in 1845, Beasley was responsible for administering his estate. Wood’s heirs sued Beasley, accusing him of mismanaging the settlement. Both sides in the suit provided the court with a substantial amount of testimony and exhibits which … read more »

- 12 Years a Slave

The release of the film 12 Years a Slave had us talking here at Out of the Box. Discussions on slavery are a common occurrence at the Library of Virginia, but it is an entirely different experience to see the brutality and violence of slavery on screen. Based on the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free African American living in Saratoga Springs, New York, kidnapped in Washington, D.C., and sold into slavery in Louisiana, the film offers an unflinching portrayal of slavery in the United States.

12 Years a Slave never pulls back from the brutality of its subject matter, and most importantly the film gives a human face to slavery—a system characterized by its dehumanization. So many of the records here at the LVA do the same, putting a name to those who suffered, and telling their stories. In addition to an original 1857 edition of Northup’s narrative, the experiences of slaves can be found in the state, local, and private records held at the LVA. Some of those stories have already been recounted here on Out of the Box. Unfortunately many of these stories end as tragically as they began.

After 12 long years, Northup managed to escape slavery, but for a young woman wrongfully enslaved in Alexandria, Virginia, that would not be the case. The details appear in the … read more »

- Middlesex Co. Chancery Goes Digital!


McCarty/Tomlin/Rowan family tree, Middlesex County Chancery Cause Administrator of Manus Rowan vs. Administrator of Winnie Carey, etc., 1892-010.

The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that digital images for the Middlesex County Chancery Causes, 1754-1912, are now available online through the Chancery Records Index on the LVA’s Virginia Memory site. Because they rely so heavily on the testimony of witness, chancery causes contain a wealth of historical and genealogical information and are especially useful when researching local, state, social, or legal history. They often contain correspondence, property lists (including slaves), lists of heirs, and vital statistics that are especially helpful in documenting the African American experience, family history, and Southern business and labor history. Following are a few suits of interest found in the collection.

The Middlesex County chancery causes contain many suits illustrating the experiences of African Americans in the tidewater region. In Simon Laughlin vs. Jacob Valentine, 1773-005, Laughlin sues for the recovery of funds he spent on boat and horse hire while traveling to a prison in Snow Hill, Maryland, looking for a runaway slave. In 1858, Elizabeth Thornton initiated two suits in attempt to get rid of unwanted slaves. In Elizabeth Thornton vs. Margaret Thornton, 1858-012, Thornton claimed that Jane had a “very bad disposition” and had become “almost worthless.” Jane supposedly was a “very bad girl, a notorious rouge,” and “very idle.” After successfully selling Jane, Thornton then sought to get rid … read more »

- You Have No Right: Jane Webb’s Story


Slave Woman and Child, undated. (Image used courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.)

The colonial era Northampton County court records tell a fascinating story of a woman named Jane Webb. Born of a white mother, she was a free mulatto, formerly called Jane Williams. In 1704, Jane Webb had “a strong desire to intermarry with a certain negro slave … commonly called and known by the name of Left.” Webb informed Left’s owner Thomas Savage, a gentleman of Northampton County, of her desire to marry Left and made an offer to Savage. She would be a servant of Savage’s for seven years and would let Savage “have all the children that should be bornd [sic] upon her body during the time of [Jane’s] servitude,” but for how long the children were to be bound is not clear. In return, Savage would allow Jane Webb to marry his slave, and after Jane’s period of servitude ended, Savage would free Left. Also, neither Savage nor his heirs could claim any child born to Jane Webb and Left after her period of servitude. Savage agreed to Jane Webb’s offer, and an agreement was written and signed by both parties.

Jane Webb fulfilled her part of the agreement and served Savage for seven years. During that time, she had three children by her husband Left—Diana or Dinah Webb, Daniel Webb, and Francis Webb. After she completed her term of service in 1711, … read more »

- “hundreds of the descendants of Indians have obtained their freedom:” Freedom Suits in 18th & 19th Century Virginia

 

Thomas Nast's celebration of the emancipation of Southern slaves with the end of the Civil War, circa 1865.

A small slip of paper on display in the Library of Virginia’s latest exhibition You Have No Right: Law and Justice in Virginia, running 24 September 2012-18 May 2013, was of immense importance to twelve people. It discloses, even though it does not state the fact in so many words, that on 2 May 1772 they gained their freedom after being held in slavery since each of them was born. The piece of paper and the fates of those Virginians illuminates a disturbing and little-known part of Virginia’s history, the enslavement of American Indians.

The paper came into the possession of the Library of Virginia in 1988 when it acquired a copy of volume two of John Tracy Atkyns, Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the High Court of Chancery in the Time of Lord Chancellor Hardwicke . . . (London, 1765–1768) that had once been in the library of the colonial government in Williamsburg. One of the librarians in the cataloguing section showed it to me, knowing of my interest in that library. When she lifted it from her desk to hand it to me, a piece of paper that had been slipped between leaves in the middle of the volume fell out and fluttered to the floor. We were surprised, and I was even more surprised when I saw what … read more »