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Mary Blackford

Union or Secession
Mary Berkeley Minor Blackford (1802–1896)
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Mary Berkeley Minor Blackford (1802–1896). Image courtesy of Mansel Blackford.
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MARY BERKELEY MINOR BLACKFORD (1802–1896)

Mary Berkeley Minor Blackford (2 December 1802–15 September 1896), antislavery leader, was born in Fredericksburg, the only daughter and second or third of eight children of John Minor and his second wife, Lucy Landon Carter Minor. John Minor died when his daughter was thirteen, and she remained very close to her mother for the rest of her mother's long life. Mary Minor received an unusually fine education for a girl of her generation, though whether at home, from private tutors, or at a local school for girls is not known. She matured into an eloquent, determined, and formidable woman who exerted a powerful influence within her large circle of family and friends.

On 12 October 1825 Minor married William Mathews Blackford, a Fredericksburg attorney, in Caroline County. She suffered for virtually her entire adult life from a debilitating back problem and often spent long intervals in bed. Nonetheless, during her first fifteen years of marriage she had six sons and two daughters, all but one of whom lived to maturity under her watchful eye. Although she descended from prominent Virginia landed families and married the son of a prosperous iron manufacturer, Blackford was never wealthy. She inherited relatively little from her father, and her husband, an able, hard-working man, never made much money. Until 1846 they lived in Fredericksburg, where William Blackford edited and published a Whig newspaper, although he spent the period from 1842 to 1845 in Bogotá as chargé d'affaires to New Granada, leaving her to care for the children and supervise the household. After his return to the United States they moved to Lynchburg, where he edited another Whig newspaper for several years and then served as cashier of the Exchange Bank of Lynchburg.

Blackford and her husband were both deeply religious people determined to translate their beliefs into social reform. They belonged to the Episcopal Church and she was a lifelong temperance advocate, but she felt constrained by the conventions of the time from playing a public role too prominent for a lady of her social standing. She wielded influence principally through her personal example and her ever-active pen. Blackford was profoundly affected by the tragedies she saw every day as a member of a slaveholding society, and like several of her close relatives she developed antislavery opinions. William Blackford shared his wife's enthusiasm for the colonization cause, but not her antislavery views. For Mary Blackford colonization paved the way for emancipation, but her husband saw it only as a means to rid the state of its free black population.

Colonization and Antislavery Activism

Blackford became the most prominent female colonizationist in Virginia. She participated in the American Colonization Society from early adulthood until the outbreak of the Civil War and corresponded with its national officers for thirty years. During her years in Fredericksburg she raised funds and assisted both free blacks and recently freed slaves in immigrating to Liberia. In 1829 she founded the Fredericksburg and Falmouth Female Auxiliary to the American Colonization Society. The auxiliary distributed tracts and by May 1830 had raised $500 and recruited eighteen women as ACS life members, including Dolley Payne Todd Madison. The Fredericksburg society was the best-publicized female auxiliary in Virginia. Its first annual "Report of the Board of Managers," written by Blackford, was published as a broadside and in the Methodist Christian Sentinel. In the fall of 1832 she began a journal, "Notes Illustrative of the Wrongs of Slavery," in which she cataloged the horrors of slavery, recorded her personal feelings, and detailed her activities.

Blackford's brother Launcelot Byrd Minor became a missionary in Liberia, and Blackford corresponded with him and with several of her family's former slaves and others whom she had assisted in emigrating there from Virginia. She never retreated from her moral position. In 1834, however, frustrated with the "unaccountable apathy . . . benumbing the public mind," she announced that the auxiliary was reinventing itself as the Ladies' Society of Fredericksburg and Falmouth, for the Promotion of Female Education in Africa. By 1837 it was helping to fund a girls' academy in Liberia run by Presbyterian missionaries. When Blackford and her family moved to Lynchburg in 1846, her public work for the ACS ended.

Despite Blackford's antipathy to slavery, the family owned a few household slaves purchased by William Blackford to assist his wife, who grew increasingly infirm with each succeeding pregnancy. As sectional tensions worsened Blackford felt increasingly alienated from her family. Her husband, who had stressed the degradation of the free black population instead of the possibility of ending slavery, grew more sectional in his attitude after 1850. Mary Blackford lamented that secessionism was unpatriotic. "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." After her husband's death on 14 or 15 April 1864, she spent most of the remainder of her long life living quietly in the Alexandria home of her son Launcelot Minor Blackford. Mary Berkeley Minor Blackford died there on 15 September 1896 and was buried in Spring Hill Cemetery in Lynchburg.

Contributed by Brent Tarter

Quotations in African Repository and Colonial Journal 10 (1834): 252–253 (first quotation); L. Minor Blackford, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: The Story of a Virginia Lady, Mary Berkeley Minor Blackford, 1802–1896 (1954), 147–148 (second quotation).

This biography, with a bibliographical note, appears in John T. Kneebone et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography (Richmond: The Library of Virginia, 1998– ), 1:523–524.

Copyright 1998 by the Library of Virginia. All rights reserved.