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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Wayne K Driver