Back in 1977, when I was a junior in college, history became a personal venture for me when an African American friend told me that his ancestors were from Virginia, but that he had always heard that they were not slaves. African Americans from Old Virginia who had never been slaves? That got my attention!
A brand new history major, I decided on the spot to research my friend’s family history. Soon I was delving into microfilmed and published records from colonial Middlesex and Gloucester Counties of Virginia, where I did indeed find the ancestors of my friend—and many more—living as “free people of color” in colonial and antebellum Virginia. The following is their story.
During the transformative years of 1680-1730, as slavery overtook servitude as the favored system of labor among planters in the English colonies of America, a small but significant population of free people of color emerged in Virginia’s Gloucester and Middlesex Counties. We know very little about their individual lives beyond their names, racial designations, and ages as recorded in church and court records. We know, for example, that Elizabeth Morris, a servant of Middlesex County, was of mixed ancestry because the vestry book of Christ Church Parish described her in 1706 as “A Mulatto Woman.” (Note 1)
That same vestry book identified Elizabeth’s white master and mistress as “gentleman” Francis Weeks and his wife, Elizabeth. The Weeks family owned a number of slaves, raising questions about why Elizabeth was not also enslaved. Perhaps her mother was also a servant, or perhaps Elizabeth was the child of an enslaved woman and a white slave master who subsequently freed her.
Long before the rise of the cotton South in the post-Revolutionary United States, people of European, African, and Native American ancestry struggled against systems of bondage in the American colonies. In the first half of the seventeenth century, as tobacco profits flourished, settlers in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay region took advantage of England’s head-right system to build vast plantations. For every person that they brought to America–including those held in bondage–fifty acres of land was granted. Although servants were entitled to collect their fifty acres of “freedom dues” after fulfilling labor contracts, high death rates allowed many planters to add those acres to their own burgeoning estates.
The same high death rates made the purchase of slaves a risky venture; transporting servants was the safer investment. Thus, although not enslaved, many seventeenth-century whites entered the New World in bondage. By 1681, there were some 15,000 mostly-white indentured servants in Colonial Virginia, compared to some 3,000 African slaves. That would soon change, however. In 1676, Bacon’s Rebellion graphically revealed the potential for revolution among the servant class. As more and more servants lived long enough to press their claims for land, Virginia planters turned to slavery as a more controllable and profitable system of labor.
As slaves increased in number, so also did Virginia lawmakers’ efforts to construct a bi-racial society that clearly differentiated among people on the basis of their race as well as status. An Act of Assembly, enforced in 1715, directed that individuals of African ancestry be labeled as such. A clerk of the Abingdon Parish of Gloucester noted in that church’s records that “A list of negros [sic] born in the Parish” was now required by law. Before 1715, he explained, ”negros” had been listed “promiscuously among the whites.” (Note 2)
But even in this deliberately bi-racial society, a third category of race and status intruded: that of free person of color, with ”color” often meaning light brown. Elizabeth Morris’s designation as a “Mulatto,” which technically meant half African, half European, should not be taken literally. Virginia officials used the term rather loosely; it might mean that an individual was born to a mixed-race couple, or simply that one or both parents were of mixed ancestry. Mainly, it meant that a person’s skin was lighter in tone than that of enslaved Africans being forced into the colony in ever greater numbers.
Elizabeth may have had connections to the white Morris family that was among the earliest to settle this region of Virginia. Thomas Morris was clerk of Gloucester County in 1657 and 1661, while Richard Morris was minister of Christ Church Parish upon its establishment in 1666. Another Morris, George, surveyed lands for building the parish.
The birth years of Elizabeth’s children make it likely that she herself was born between 1670 and 1690. During those years, Thomas Morris’s two sons, James and Thomas Jr., owned 670 acres of land that they inherited from their father. Any of the above men might have fathered Elizabeth, or once held her as a slave. Or, perhaps there was a daughter or sister who engaged in an interracial affair that resulted in her birth. (Note 3)
One thing is certain: Elizabeth is the earliest identified ancestor of the free Morrises of color from whom my friend descended. Whether or not she was ever enslaved, it’s also certain that this “Mulatto Woman” lived during a volatile period of early Virginia history. As English settlers struggled to dominate the New World, they discovered that white indentured servants, slaves, and Indians could be a dangerous mix. In 1663, more than a decade before Bacon’s Rebellion rocked the colony, an uprising known as the “Servants Plot” was narrowly averted in Gloucester County.
Betrayed from within by an indentured servant, the Servants’ Plot was brutally quashed. Literally, heads rolled, their bloody stumps posted atop chimneys in gruesome displays reminiscent of the Old World’s London Bridge. Yet again, in 1722, threats of insurrections by slaves and free people of color re-emerged in the region of Gloucester and Middlesex Counties. Rumors of uprisings ignited the fears of whites, who responded with passage of draconian laws.
In 1724, Virginia lawmakers decreed that “Negroes, mulattoes, and Indians, bond or free,” convicted of fomenting conspiracies or insurrections would “suffer death and be Utterly excluded the benefit of Clergy and all laws made concerning the same.” Unsupervised meetings were forbidden among all “Negroes or other slaves.” Slaves “notoriously guilty” of running away could be ordered by the court “to be punished by Dismembering Or any Other Way not touching Life.” (Note 4)
Land rich and labor poor, white masters, including several Morrises, rapidly replaced unruly servants with chattel slaves. Between 1770 and 1782, William Morris, white, of Petsworth Parish owned 99 acres and five slaves; in neighboring Mathews County, a William Morris, Sr., white, owned 343 ½ acres and ten slaves. (Note 5)
As a result, Elizabeth Morris’s children and grandchildren would grow up in a world increasingly defined by slavery. Although they were not themselves slaves, neither were they fully free. For several generations, they or their children remained in a cycle of servitude.
Servants, like slaves, were forbidden by law to marry, which increased the number of illicit births among them. Elizabeth’s pregnancy violated the terms of her indenture contract and resulted in her children being born into servitude. Between courthouse and church, the new family was alternately blessed and condemned. On March 15, 1705/06, Christ Church baptized Elizabeth’s newborn son, James Morris, while the Middlesex county court ordered its sheriff to administer 25 lashes to Elizabeth’s bare back as punishment. A year later, the process was repeated. Her newborn daughter Winnefred, born May 9, 1707, was baptized by Christ Church, while the court once again ordered the mother whipped for giving birth out of wedlock.
And so it went. Like her children, Elizabeth’s grandchildren were indentured, beginning when daughter Winnie gave birth to her own daughter, Biddy, at age fifteen. A second daughter, Betty, was born in 1728, but died less than a year later. By 1742, Winnie had three sons: Francis, George, and James. (Two other children, Thomas, born 1843, and William, born 1845, were likely sons of Winnie’s older brother, James Morris.)
Five years before her death in 1745 at the age of thirty-seven, Winnie was identified in the records as a free woman. Still, her children remained in servitude. Sons George and James were ordered “bound out” by the courts after Virginia’s race-based laws required that all “Mulattos and Indians” be apprenticed, or bound, to a master until age 31, regardless of their mother’s status. This apprenticeship system was adopted widely throughout the South, although the ages of release were lowered to 21 for males and 18 for females during the nineteenth century. Until after the Civil War, apprenticeship functioned as a system for socially and economically controlling free people of color. (Note 6)
As they “aged” their way into freedom, the Morrises intermarried with other free families of color—notably those with the surnames of Lockley, Driver, Lemon, Blufoot (Blueford), and Thias—and built large families. By the late eighteenth century, members from these families were landowners. By 1799, “Mulattoes” James and Seth Morris together paid taxes on forty acres of land. By 1821, James was deceased, and Seth Morris was the sole owner of the forty acres. (Note 7)
During the same years, Virginia slaveholders pushed for greater restrictions on free people of color. In 1793, the state required that “free negroes or mulattoes” register their status with the town clerk. Failure to do so could result in imprisonment. In 1806, it forbade them the right to bear arms without a license (after the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831, the right even to obtain a license was denied). How, one wonders, did men feed their families without the ability to hunt animals? Even the major occupation of Gloucester free men of color—netting oysters—was compromised by restrictive laws. In 1811, the legislature passed a law stating that:
Any waterman of color found strolling from his boat may be whipped any number of lashes, not exceeding twenty, if he is not going directly to or from any spring for the purpose of getting water. (Note 8)
And so, as the nineteenth century progressed, the Morrises endured the indignities that accompanied the antebellum South’s evolving caste system. In December 1822, the registration papers of “William Morris, a free tawney man, no. 44,” and “Deanna Morris, a free mulatto woman, no. 45,” were examined by the court, and “found to be truly made.” The couple had passed muster and could continue to live in the conditional freedom accorded people of their status. (Note 9)
William’s racial designation, “tawney,” indicated a skin tone lighter than that of a “Mulatto” or “black” person. In 1823, Betty Morris and Mary Morris were likewise described by the court as tawney, while Lucy Morriss and Warner Morris were described as Mulattoes. No matter how light their skin, however, the Morrises would never be considered “white”; at least, not as long as they remained in Gloucester County, where officials knew the family’s racially-mixed background.
The forced apprenticeship of free children of color continued until after the Civil War. In the years following the Nat Turner rebellion, however, there was much talk of removing all “free Negroes” from the commonwealth, in which case, contracts specified, the apprenticeship would be voided. By 1838, however, that plan no longer appeared feasible, and the caveat was dropped. (Note 10)
After May, 1838, a typical apprenticeship contract was that of “free boy” Lewis Morris. In February, 1840, Lewis was ordered bound to Robert P. Russell “until he attains the age of 21 years to learn the art . . . of a shoemaker. And it is ordered that he keep said boy until he is fifteen years of age free of charge and to pay thereafter $10 a year and furnish him with an extra suit of clothes the last year of his apprenticeship.” Russell would thus benefit for years from the free labor of Lewis, depriving his mother, Winney Morris, of both the labor and companionship of her child. (Note 11)
Though rare, apprenticeship contracts were sometimes successfully challenged by parents. In March, 1840, just one month after her son Lewis was ordered apprenticed to Robert Russell, Winney Morris managed to have the contract rescinded “for reasons appearing to the court.” Unfortunately, the court did not identify those reasons.
Twenty years later, also on unspecified grounds, Lucy Morriss challenged the legality of her twelve-year-old son Phillip’s apprenticeship to Isaac Woodland. In November, 1860, the court summoned Woodland to appear in its chambers “to show cause if any he can why the indenture of the said apprentice should not be revoked & annulled.” The outcome of that suit is uncertain, but it may be that the sectional crisis between North and South had begun to disrupt local communities, making apprenticeship contracts harder to enforce. (Note 12)
We do know the outcome of a suit against Tom Morris, a “free boy of color.” Like many a servant boy before him, Tom played hooky from his master’s home. From August until October, 1860, Henry Rilee lodged accusations that Tom had “deserted the service of said master.” The court ordered the missing boy to appear at its December term to answer charges. Tom, however, did not show up in court–not in December, and not in January, 1861, either, when he was ordered again to appear. By 1861 the South’s secession from the Union loomed on the horizon, and lawmakers may have concluded they had far more to worry about than the whereabouts of one rebellious teenage boy. In a decision that surely must have pleased young Tom, the court dropped Rilee’s case and ordered Tom Morris’s apprenticeship “revoked and annulled.”
The Civil War and Reconstruction soon revolutionized the world of free people, slaveholders, and slaves. The existence of the slaveholding South’s free people of color, like that of its Southern Unionists, was forgotten by many people. In modern-day Gloucester County, however, the history of the Morris family’s distant ancestors survived in the long-held tradition that “we were never slaves.”
Victoria E. Bynum
Follow-up post, January 15, 2013, “Nathan Crowell on Racial Identity: Free People of Color in Old Virginia revisited.”
1. C. G. Chamber, compiler, Vestry Book of Christ Church Parish, Middlesex County, VA, 1663-1767 (Richmond: Old Dominion Press, 1927), p. 58. (Hereafter cited as Christ Church Parish.)
2. Abingdon Parish Register, Episcopal Church, Gloucester County, 1678-1761
3. Polly Cary Mason, Records of Colonial Gloucester County, Virginia, (Newport News, Va: George C. Mason, 1948) vol 1-2; Christ Church Parish, pp. 6, 9.
4. Christ Church Parish, pp. 189, 190
5. Mason, Records of Colonial Gloucester County, vol 1.
6. Christ Church Parish, pp 58, 222, 245, 270. The information on the Morrises from Christ Church Parish records is available online in Paul Heinegg’s Free African Americans.
7. Gloucester County, VA, Land Tax books, 1782-1850 (microfilm)
8. June Purcell Guild, Black Laws of Virginia (Negro Universities press, 1969), pp. 5. 19, 97.
9. Gloucester County, VA, Court Minutes, 1822-1825 (microfilm).
10. Ibid., 1834-1839.
11. Ibid., 1839-1842.
12. Ibid., 1858-1867.