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The following guest essay by Wayne K. Driver expands upon my own research on the Morris Family of Gloucester County, Virginia.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

By Wayne K. Driver

Throughout my years of researching my family from Gloucester County and the Tidewater Area of Virginia, I have noted that several families, including my own, were listed as “free Negroes” or “mulattoes” prior to 1800. This discovery ignited my interest; I wanted to know more about these families and how they fit into a society in which most people of African descent were slaves and where those of European descent dominated. I wondered if these free people of color had any rights, if they owned property or had the freedom to move about without being harassed.  Since my focus was on the years prior to 1800, I also wondered how they felt about the Revolutionary War.  Which side did they support? Which side promised a better future for them?

Families with the names ALLMOND/ALLMAN, BLUFORD, DRIVER, FREEMAN, GOWEN/ GOING, HEARN, KING, LEMON, MEGGS, MONOGGIN, and MORRIS are identified in various documents as living free from slavery.  “Free” did not necessarily mean, however, that they were as free as those of full European ancestry.  These “free” people did not have slave masters, but they did have limitations place upon them and hardships that would not be understood by my generation.

The above families of color, as well as others not cited in this essay, contributed to America by serving in wars, participating in religious movements, and working in many trades. At the same time, they strove for greater freedom of access to education, property ownership, and social equality.  Too often, these pioneers are forgotten in the history books; rarely are they recognized for their work in shaping the counties in which they lived.  When I drive through Gloucester, to my knowledge there is no physical memorial that bears witness to their service in the Revolutionary War, or their contributions to their communities.  I can find all types of negative propaganda concerning “free Negroes,” such as recommendations for their forced removal from the county, or punishment for not paying taxes. My hope is that someday the leaders of these communities will recognize free families of color and teach generations to come about their positive contributions.

Society and Labels

Societies are often divided into historical eras.  I am particularly interested in the colonial, revolutionary, and antebellum periods of the United States, and how “free people of color” fared during each of them.  My research has taken me to different states and localities, where I have noticed varying attitudes displayed by white officials toward people of color. For example, Virginia law prohibited interracial marriages, yet I found such marriages listed in some court records.  I also noticed how inconsistently people in power recorded a person’s skin color or race.  In some cases, the description was diligent and descriptive; in others, it was not.  For example, members of the DRIVER family were described in some records as “white” and in others as “mulatto” or “colored”.  I found these records interesting and disturbing at the same time, and therefore decided to explore these subjects and share my observations about them.

Samuel "Squire" Driver, 1815-1872, and Sarah "Sally" Driver (maiden name unknown), 1815-1872

Samuel “Squire” Driver, 1815-1872, and Sarah “Sally” Driver (maiden name unknown), 1815-1872

As I browsed through various historical documents, I noticed that court clerks paid close attention to describing the person(s) being listed.  By law, in 1705, a mulatto was a person deemed to have one-eighth or more African blood. By 1866, one-quarter African blood meant one was “colored,” whereas one-quarter Indian blood meant one was Indian.

In some records, persons defined as “mulatto” were further defined by their shade of complexion. A mulatto might be described as “Yellow/Yellowish,” “Tawney,” “Light”, or “Brown/Dark Mulatto,”—the list goes on.  When I first saw the term “Tawney,” I had to research its meaning. After consulting FreeDictionary.Com, I concluded that this complexion color included several shades of brown ranging from light to brownish orange.

The mulatto MEGGS Family of Middlesex and Gloucester County was described as “Yellow” and “Tawney” in various records. For example, “free negro” James Meggs, born around 1752, was listed as a “yellow” tithable in Middlesex County in 1787, and as a “mulatto” tithable in 1788.

For genealogical information on the Meggs household, see Heinegg, Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, and Delaware at http://freeafricanamericans.com/Mason_Month.htm

It was also customary for a clerk to state a person’s status of birth when it occurred outside of marriage.  Terms like “illegitimate” and “bastard” where often used.  At first I could not understand why such births occurred so frequently in the Bible Belt, but I soon learned that slaves were prohibited by law from marrying, and that interracial marriages became illegal in Virginia in 1691. Thus, free people of color could legally marry only one another.

Although the law stated that an interracial couple would be banished from the Dominion forever, I did not find evidence of this happening.  In 1792 another law was enacted stating that

he or she shall be committed to prison for six months and pay $30.00 for use of the parish.  The penalty for a minister marrying Negroes and whites is set at $250 for every such marriage.

Many such laws seem to have been ignored, however, in Gloucester County. During the late 1700’s, Susanna DRIVER (Caucasian) gave birth to a mulatto bastard child. Susanna is cited several times in the vestry books in regard to her mulatto children. It appears that she was white and her spouse was of African ancestry. Prior to her husband’s death she gave birth to another child, but no reference to race was indicated in the vestry books.

The oldest free family of color that I have been able to identify in Gloucester County is the GOWEN/GOWINGS/GOINGS family.  They were the children of Michael GOWEN, born about 1635, who was the “negro” servant of Christopher STAFFORD.  STAFFORD gave him his freedom on January 18, 1654, in York County, Virginia, after four years of service. This is a fascinating family that is well documented by Paul Heinegg in his book, Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina, at http://www.freeafricanamericans.com/Virginia_NC.htm.  Throughout this article, I draw heavily on Heinegg’s research, and I encourage you to visit this site to learn more about the genealogical history of the above families.

The ALLMOND/ALLMAN/ALMAN family is another unique family that I have encountered during my research.  Orally, I was once told that they were Native American.  The oldest members of the family that I was able to identify were Sally, Jenny, Edward, James (born about 1769), and Zachariah (born about 1775). Most records identify this family as mulatto, but they have also been described as descended from the Pamunkey Tribe of King William County, VA.

I also noticed during my research that some people of color, both slave and free, challenged their legal status in the courts. The BLUFORT/BLUEFOOT family matriarch, free woman Sarah BLUFORT, did so when she complained to the Lancaster County, VA, court that she had been sold by Matthew Green to Rawleigh Hazard.  Court records described Sarah as having been “bound” (apprenticed) to Matthew Green until the age of thirty-one. Green had sold her apprenticeship to Mr. Hazard, much as one might sell a slave. The court seems to have allowed the sale, but forbade Hazard from removing Sarah from the county, which was forbidden by law in regard to apprentices.  (Heinegg, http://www.freeafricanamericans.com/Beverly_Brogdon.htm)

The American Revolution

Years ago, I took a cruise to Nova Scotia, Canada.  We had several tour options as we docked and departed the ship.  I chose the option of visiting the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia (BCCNS). During this visit, I learned about “Black Loyalists,” (people of color who remained loyal to the British Crown during the American Revolution) who were issued “certificates of freedom” after the Americans won the war and the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783. People identified as black were given the option to relocate to Nova Scotia, the West Indies, Quebec, England, Germany and Belgium.  According to the BCCNS web site, an estimated 5,000 people of African descent chose to relocate.

Over 3,000 loyalists were recorded in Canada’s Book of Negroes, including Joseph Elliott, 30, former property of John Elliott of Gloucester County, and George Glocester, a 15-year-old boy who also escaped slavery. Three women from Gloucester County, all described by the derogatory term “stout wench,” commonly applied to slave women, were also relocated and freed: Polly Carey, 26, formerly the property of Humphrey Gwin, Elizabeth White, 25, formerly the property of John Perrin; and Sukey Smith, 25, formerly the property of Major Smith.

As I learned this history for the first time in my life, I had to ask the question, “Why did these blacks choose the British side of the war?”  Although slavery was on the wane in Canada, it was still legal there until the 1830s.  According to our tour guide, social conditions were no better for blacks than in the United States.  So why would they choose the British side?  The short answer is FREEDOM.  In November of 1775, five months after the battle of Bunker Hill, the British offered American slaves their freedom if they would support the British.  They did not make this offer because they wanted to end slavery; the British Empire itself did not abolish slavery until 1833. The British offer of freedom to American slaves was a tactical move designed to disrupt the economy of its slaveholding colonies.

If the British enticed slaves to join their cause by offering the prospect of freedom, why did other people of African descent fight for the American colonies?  At first, the Continental army did not want to enlist people of color. Eventually, however, blacks comprised an estimated 5% of Americans who fought at Bunker Hill.  In January, 1776, President George Washington allowed the enlistment of free blacks who had prior military experience.  In 1777, in desperation, the Continental army allowed both free blacks and slaves to enlist. In need of manpower, the colonists promised slaves their freedom in exchange for service. Those who fought on the Patriot side, then, also fought for African American FREEDOM.

For more on the subject of African Americans and the Revolution, see http://www.nps.gov/revwar/about_the_revolution/african_americans.html

Free people of color from Gloucester County, Virginia, served the Revolutionary cause on land and sea.  Gloucester County is a peninsula that touches the Chesapeake Bay, and many free men already made their living from the water. Some became navy seaman, while others served on land.

The DRIVER, HEARN, and MONOGGIN families appear in various Revolutionary records. These men are American heroes.  They fought in battles, and then had to fight for their pensions and other benefits long after the war was over. An example was Ephraim HEARN, a weaver who served in the Revolutionary War. Born about 1745, in 1829 Ephraim lived with his wife, Molly, and his three children, Peter, Jane, and Betsy, in Gloucester County. That year, he successfully petitioned to collect his pension from the government. As the court clerk noted on 12 August 1829:

I, Arthur S. Davies, clerk of the court of Gloucester county do hereby certify that it appears to the satisfaction of the court that the said Ephraim Hearn did serve in the Revolutionary War as stated in the preceding declaration against the common enemy for the term therein stated under one engagement on the continental establishment.

To read the entire text of Ephraim Hearn’s pension application, see http://lestweforget.hamptonu.edu/page.cfm?uuid=9FEC4EAB-B4BC-9223-A25A0AFFCD5B9824

Religious Faith

Religion, particularly Christianity, was the glue that sustained the African American community throughout its early struggles in America.  I remember traveling with my grandfather from Philadelphia to Gloucester County to attend the family church’s “Homecoming” celebrations or week-long revivals.  My grandfather, a Baptist preacher, would sometimes be invited to preach at a local church.  During those summer visits, I observed the strong convictions my relatives held about worship and fellowship.  The only time my grandmother threatened me with the switch was when I announced that I wasn’t going to church one night.  My older brother obtained the switch for her and I am still mad at him for that.  Seriously, I discovered over the years that faith has played a major role in the life of African Americans in this country.  Today, faith is what guides me daily in my life.

The noted black historian, Carter G. Woodson, Ph.D, recognized this in Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830, where he wrote that,

Negroes were not easily stirred by the doctrines of the Quakers and Presbyterians, but they flocked into the folds of the Methodists and Baptists, who won them by successfully socializing the Gospel, by popularizing the appeal with emotional preaching designed to move the illiterate to repentance.

Dr. Woodson also noted that “William Lemmon was called by a white congregation to serve at the Pettsworth or Gloucester church in Virginia.” Lemon was described by white and black contemporaries as a “lively and affecting” preacher.

Members of the LEMON family (variously spelled Lemmon, Lemmond or LeMond) have been documented as “free” since the birth of Ambrose Lemon around 1725.  William Lemon, born about 1845 in Gloucester County, was the brother or son of Ambrose.  Today, this family still maintains a strong presence in Gloucester County.  According to oral tradition, there was an area in Gloucester known as LEMON Town.  The LEMON family has a rich tradition in religion, education and business.

For more on the Lemon family’s genealogy, see Paul Heinegg’s Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina: http://www.freeafricanamericans.com/Lemon_Lytle.htm

Land Ownership

Land was difficult to obtain during this time by poor people of any color.  I can only imagine the obstacles that stood in the way of free people of color.  Those who managed to do so were extraordinary to say the least.

Being considered “free” during a time when slavery was the norm did not always mean independence.  Owning land gave these free people of color some independence.  In his book, The Honey-pod Tree, the famous black Gloucester County lawyer Thomas Calhoun Walker, born into slavery, dedicated a chapter to his quest to educate blacks about owning land.  T. C. Walker founded a company, “The Gloucester Land and Brick Company” solely to create opportunities for blacks to own land.  He traveled from church to church and school to school to discuss the benefits of owning land and a home.  As Walker wrote:

The most effective inducement to buying a piece of land, I found, was to continue to stress the Emancipation argument: to tell the Negroes that they could never be really free until they owned their own homes.  Finally, after that conviction got well established, and the people were really awake to a sense of their duties to themselves and their families, we just let the company die.  Its purpose had been accomplished.

In 1944, historian Charles Purdue noted Thomas Calhoun Walker’s efforts in his book, The Negro in Virginia:

A consistent campaign for home and land ownership has been waged among the State’s rural Negroes for the past half century by Thomas C. Walker of Gloucester County, lawyer and former advisor to the Work Projects Administration of Virginia.  The success of his efforts is testified by the fact that, in Gloucester County, 881 of its 995 Negro families own their homes.  Of the 574 farms operated by Negroes in the county, 494 are owned by Negroes themselves.  In no county in the state, or in the Nation, is there a higher ratio of Negro farm ownership. (Virginia Writers Project, 1944, p. 365)  

When I first noticed that numerous people of color owned land in the late 18th and early 19th century, I wondered how it was possible.  I still don’t have the answer to this question, but I do admire those who were able to acquire land during this time.  The FREEMAN family clearly saw a future for their family by owning land in 1787.  The “List of the Land Tax within the District of Richard Gregory Commissioner of Gloucester County  the year 1787” noted that James FREEMAN owned 34 acres.  This land seems to have remained in the FREEMAN family throughout the next generation.  As I researched this family, it was hard to discern their race.  Some records identify this family as white, while others identity them as mulattoes.

To learn more about the genealogy of the Freeman family, see http://www.freeafricanamericans.com/Fagan_George.htm

The DRIVER, LEMON and MORRIS families are also recorded as land owners as far back as the 1782 Tax Records for Gloucester County, VA.  The MORRIS family is well documented here on Renegade South by Victoria Bynum’s “Free People of Color” in Old Virginia: The Morris Family of Gloucester County.”  My paternal great grandmother, Margaret MORRIS Driver was the daughter of Elijah MORRIS, who owned a great deal of land.  As of today, this land is still in my family.  Thank you Great Grand (2X) for this gift; I know you worked very hard to maintain our land.

Margaret Morris Driver, daughter of Elijah Morris,  wife of John Driver.

Margaret Morris Driver, daughter of Elijah Morris, wife of John Driver.

Children of Margaret Ann Morris and John Driver

Children of Margaret Ann Morris and John Driver

Professional Trades

During my years of my research, I found many free people of color who worked as skilled artisans, including as carpenters, bricklayers, blacksmiths, and shoemakers. Some excelled in their professions: the DRIVER Brothers made quality furniture.  My ancestors, Sam DRIVER and Robert DRIVER, were blacksmiths.  Matthew T. DRIVER (see photo below), one of the earliest instructors at Tuskegee University, taught wheelwrighting.  The majority of black male heads of households in Gloucester County were listed as farmers, oysterman and farm laborers, but they all knew how use their hands in one way or another.  The occupations listed for women of color included spinners, weavers, cake sellers, and one seamstress.

Matthew T. Driver

Matthew T. Driver

As a child I spent many summers with my uncle Bill DRIVER in Connecticut.  By day he was a tool maker and in his free time he dabbled in art and wood.  One summer I helped him build a coffee table.  As a person largely confined to a desk managing technology projects, I admire those who are gifted in working with their hands; they must feel a great sense of accomplishment.  The founder of Tuskegee Institute, Booker T Washington, believed that blacks should not only pursue and education, but should also know a trade—words of wisdom for all times.

For more on the lives of free families of color, see “Free People of Colour in Gloucester County, Virginia,” by Edwin B. Washington, Jr., and L. Roane Hunt.  The article can be obtained from the Gloucester Genealogical Society of Virginia at http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~vaggsv/index.htm.

CONCLUSION

My research has been very educational for me and I hope the same for you.  As you can see, I am not a professional writer and I only publish articles to share information with family and others.  As I conduct my research, I get a tiny glimpse into the past and I am encouraged by ancestors who have done remarkable things when the odds were against them.  This gives me perspective for any situation that I may come across in life.  I can only read about and imagine the hardships my ancestors incurred during their lives.  When I think about complaining, I go and do some research to get over what ails me.

There are many good sources for research, but take some time to read all the references that I have provided.  These dedicated researchers and writers have so much to share with you.

God Bless,

Wayne K Driver

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By Vikki Bynum

Here’s another region of the South with a fascinating history of mixed-race ancestry. I discovered the Chowan Discovery Group after Steven Riley, creator and moderator of Mixed Race Studies, introduced me via email to the Group’s Executive Director, Marvin T. Jones. The “Winton Triangle,” located in Hertford County, North Carolina, encompasses the three towns of Winton, Cofield, and Ahoskie. Here, people maintain a distinctive identity rooted in Native American, European, and African ancestry.

According to Marvin Jones, the Triangle traces its origins to before the 1584 arrival of the English to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where Chowanoke (Choanoac) Indian settlements were prominent along the Chowan River. After the English invasion, diseases (to which Native Americans lacked immunity) and territorial disputes decimated and disrupted the Chowanoke settlements of present-day Hertford County.*

Choanoac Village marker

During the early 1600s, England continued its relentless effort to gain a stronghold in North American, successfully planting settlements on the James River in Virginia.  Again, disease and war displaced native populations. Indians traveling down the Meherrin River eventually settled in the Chowanokes’ previous home of Hertford County, North Carolina. In the century that followed, interactions between these Native Americans and English and African immigrants would produce the mixed-ancestry people of today’s Winton Triangle.

The mixed-race people of the Winton Triangle did not live far from those of Gloucester County, Virginia, the subject of an earlier essay on this blog. In both these regions, outward migration by Europeans, funded by Crowns and merchants in search of new lands, precious metals, and cash crops, brought a collision of continents, especially those of Europe, the Americas, and Africa. Within each, there were winners and losers. Those with wealth and power benefited from expanding empires. Others, such as England’s “sturdy beggars,” were forced into indentured servitude, or, like Africa’s captured villagers, into slavery. Many Native Americans were also forced into various systems of bondage.

In the Winton Triangle, however, as in Gloucester County, a number of people designated non-white escaped slavery. Legally defined as “free people of color,” people of mixed ancestry (particularly before the American Revolution) often maintained “interdependent relations” with local whites, which enabled them to buy land and to learn marketable skills.  Equally important, they founded schools and churches and built communities of mutual support that endured the centuries.*

The Winton Triangle and Gloucester County share similar characteristics, yet each region has its own unique history. Their  common features, however, speak to the social and economic forces that shaped the Atlantic coastal history and eventually enabled England to lay claim to its Thirteen Original Colonies. Often overlooked in the panoramic history of empire and bondage in the Americas are the new peoples who emerged, and the mechanisms by which they survived, even prospered, by building tightly-knit communities amid eras of slavery, segregation, and white supremacist laws and customs imposed by the dominant society.

During the Civil War, Parker fought for the Union with the 2nd Cavalry of U.S. Colored Troops. Photo courtesy Benj. Gary Robbins and Marvin T. Jones

During the Civil War, Sgt. Parker D. Robbins fought for the Union with the 2nd Cavalry of U.S. Colored Troops. Photo courtesy Benj. Gary Robbins and Marvin T. Jones

Elf and Annie Jones Family, circa 1914. Photo courtesy of Alice Jones Nickens and Marvin T. Jones

Elf and Annie Jones Family, circa 1914. Photo courtesy of Alice Jones Nickens and Marvin T. Jones

The history of the Winton Triangle is too long and too complex to do it justice in a short essay such as this. Luckily, Marvin Jones and the Chowan Discovery Group’s Directors, Laverne Jones and Dr. Harold Mitchell (all of whom were born and raised in the Triangle), are dedicated to collecting, preserving, and presenting materials relevant to that history. They hope to coordinate their efforts with other individuals, community leaders, organizations, and institutions that share like interests. Check their organization out at Chowan Discovery Group!

*See Marvin T. Jones, “The Leading Edge of Edges: The Triracial People of the Winton Triangle,” in Carolina Genesis: Beyond the Color Lineedited by Scott Withrow (2010): 181-209.

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Some time ago, in response to my 10 November 2011 post, “Free People of Color in Old Virginia: The Morris Family of Gloucester County,”  (which I encourage you to read or reread) I received a long email message from Nathan Crowell, who traces his own mixed-heritage ancestry back to Gloucester County. Nathan shared not only his family research with me, but also certain insights that he gained over the years from listening to his ancestors—particularly his grandmother: insights into what it meant to be a “free person of color” in a slaveholding society, what it meant to be defined as “black” when one’s skin was fair. His remarks remind us that life in the Old South was far more complex than most of us realize, and that “race” was an imposed category of human existence that had no rational biological basis, but had very real legal, social, and psychological consequences that shaped the experiences and consciousness of all members of society.

With Nathan’s permission, I have created the following post from his remarks.

Vikki Bynum Moderator

Nathan Crowell on Racial Identity: Gloucester County, Virginia, revisited

My grandmother was raised in Gloucester County, Virginia, by the family of her mother. Her mother died when my grandmother was six months old. I always have been interested in her family history, and as well that of my other grandparents. So I have slowly and steadfastly attempted to learn what I can. I have traced the families of most of my grandparents back to the early 1600′s, where I found a combination of black ancestors, white ancestors, and so forth. In the process, I have learned an immense amount. I’ve seen that before the Civil War, people were incredibly mobile; they moved across counties, e.g., from Gloucester up to Campbell, and they moved across states, e.g., from Virginia to Ohio. I am from New York, and my visions of the South result from my grandparents’ narratives and my summer vacations “down home.” The South has always seemed to be static, and perpetually unchanged. The mobility of my ancestors however, clearly demonstrates that that perception is indeed erroneous.

Still, I had been taught long ago that Virginia was a major exporter of slaves to other states. While many of these slaves undoubtedly were bred just to be sold South, I understand now that there were actually thousands of slaves in Virginia at any one time; and many of the exported slaves were simply surplus from farms that had become increasingly unproductive. It was nothing more pernicious than that.

As well, I’ve come to realize that slavery was a lot more complex than I had believed. In the North, the experience is portrayed in black and white—defenseless slaves at the mercy of brutal masters. And even if that worldview is tempered, by literature from the period for example, it is still hard to internalize anything but the degradation and brutality of slavery. However, at the same time there was an intense interconnectedness among slaves, their masters, and everyone else living in the South. As a case in point, I have white relatives whose sole emotional relationship was with a slave; the uncle of one of my great, great-grandmothers, Ned Hockaday, never married a white woman, but had a good number of children with one of his slaves.  I have white relatives who had black children right alongside white ones. One of my great, great, great-grandfathers, William Hockaday, had a black son who he named Thomas, and as well, he had a white son, whom he also named Thomas. And then there are my free black ancestors, who were neighbors and possibly tenant farmers who rented land from their white ancestors. Effectively, they were living near, even with, their white cousins.

Perhaps most importantly, I’ve gained a much better understanding of who my grandmother was, and that has been very gratifying. My grandmother was very colorstruck, and growing up, I always found it to be unpleasantly odd. Again, I grew up in New York City, and in the seventies, with the emphasis on black pride and galvanizing the black community, there was no space for perceptions of superiority based on relative skin tone. As well, my grandmother was very dark, and it seemed that she took after her father, John Hamilton Boulden, who was pretty dark himself. My other grandmother, and my grandfather too, were, on the other hand, very fair–red hair, freckles, the works. And they never made any mention about skin color differences and certainly, they never seemed to attach any relative importance to lighter skin. So it was really strange to hear my grandmother go on about fair skin, good grades of hair, and so forth. I just wrote her views off as a legacy of slavery, illustrative of the sense of shame and inferiority that blacks took away from the slave experience. And given her age, it did seem logical to do so.  I see now that my grandmother’s views were a legacy of her family’s distinctive struggles as well as a byproduct of race-based slavery. I see that free blacks were just a sliver of the black community, with hundreds of them juxtaposed against thousands and thousands of slaves. And I can only imagine the intense pressure they faced in trying to distinguish themselves from those slaves, and thereby preserve their freedom, and any of the rights and privileges that it entailed. It would only make sense for them to fixate on skin color, hair texture, pedigree, and just about anything else that would help them stand apart. Thus, I think that the color prejudice that she learned was less about pride in white ancestors and disdain for African ancestors, and more an integral part of a hard-fought attempt at self-preservation.

Nathan Crowell

Note from Moderator: In the following indictment from a North Carolina court, in which a free woman of color is charged with illegally attempting to marry an enslaved man, we see one example of how the lives of free people of color were circumscribed by law:

In the following court document from antebellum North Carolina, a free woman of color is charged with illegally trying to marry a slave.

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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.  

Vikki Bynum

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.

Map of Virginia highlighting Gloucester County

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)

Abingdon Episcopal Church, White Marsh, Gloucester County, Donated by Frances Benjamin Johnston.

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.

Servants Plot Marker

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)

Rosewell Plantation Ruins, Gloucester Co. Built in 1725 for planter Mann Page, this mansion of Flemish bond brickwork was patterned after the elaborate London homes of the era.

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 posts: January 15, 2013, “Nathan Crowell on Racial Identity: Free People of Color in Old Virginia revisited.”;

Wayne K. Driver, ” ‘Free Negroes’ and ‘Mulattoes’ in Gloucester County and the Tidewater Area of Virginia prior to 1800.”

NOTES:

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.

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