No Master Over Me

no master over me

A man purchases his enslaved family to set them free. James Ingram shares the tale.

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Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.

This Thursday, February 7, Colonial Williamsburg actor-interpreter James: Ingram will put on a costume and stand before the cameras to play a role he knows well. The production is the EFT "No Master Over Me," and the character is Matthew Ashby, a free black man who purchased his wife and two children in order to set them free. James Ingram joins us now to tell us more.

One of the things about "No Master Over Me" it I think it tells people about blacks who were not slaves that many people don't know even existed. For instance, you were a free black.

James Ingram: Absolutely.

Lloyd: Your wife and two kids were both slaves.

James: Yes.

Lloyd: You worked and made the money to purchase them.

James: Yes.

Lloyd: Right, but they were still slaves after you purchased them.

James: Yes.

Lloyd: It's just you owned them, instead of somebody else.

James: The real quagmire is the fact that the free black is between the twixt. They're between the white society and the enslaved society. Society is made mostly of whites, but you had a large number of slaves. These sort of invisible people – free blacks – were part of the system, but yet not part of the system. The question is: are they really free, and what is freedom?

Often the law of slaves included free blacks, because when they wrote slave laws, they often included bond or free within the writing. Therefore, free blacks were included in restrictions of movement, also weapons -- you couldn't have ammunition. Certain individual rights that were afforded to most white citizens are not afforded to the free black citizen.

Lloyd: Matthew Ashby – he's bought his wife and kids now, but he realizes that if he gets into debt or something goes wrong, his wife and two kids are still slaves and could be sold as pieces of property to settle his debt. What does he do?

James: He goes to John Blair, president of the governor's council. That's a peculiar relationship in itself, because as we well know, there is a caste system in this society. Therefore you are sort of born into a caste, and you are kept there by the constraints of society and laws and what have you.

Normally a person of Matthew Ashby's stature – he was a carpenter, so honest work and very hardworking person – but he had contacts with very powerful people. John Blair being one of the most powerful in Virginia. Governor Botetourt, he had some duties to take some very important legal papers out West. He seemed to rub shoulders with some of these very powerful people, which gave him a leg up in society. He was able move around and be part of people's lives that normally he wouldn't be part of.

Also, you know the system. He knew the system. I think it's an advantage being born here as a free black, even an enslaved person. It's an advantage because you get to know the system. You get to know how to move around, even those laws and those restraints that are put before you, you know how to get over and get around those. Matthew Ashby was one of those wise men that could maneuver society to meet his needs.

Knowing that his wife – and 150 pounds, that's how much it cost to purchase her from Mr. Spurr – and his daughter and his son, John and Mary, that's a lot of money. Most people won't see that much money in their lifetime. That's a lot of money to raise to purchase them. Then, as you said, they became his slaves. The next step is how to manumit them. How to manumit? That's not an easy process.

First of all, at this particular point in time, it's not very popular for manumission for the enslaved. You have to go before the council and general court in the capitol building. You have to answer the question. It should be some meritorious deed had been done to give them freedom. If you give them freedom, or they granted freedom to these slaves, they have to leave the colony within six months.

Now, that's a real problem if you have a wife, you have children. How you going to get around that? Obviously, because he knew the right people, he got that letter of manumission read to his advantage. That's sometimes a hurdle to get over some of these laws and some of these problems in society for a free black or even an enslaved person. He found a way to do it. Obviously he had a mission to do this, yes.

Lloyd: He clearly knew how to use the system.

James: Mr. Spurr had no idea he could raise that much money. He probably threw out a figure. He said, "I know he'll never be able to get this much money up in this amount of time, in two years' time." But you know, sometime, again, when you are in a pressed situation, and sometimes you don't know what's inside of you until you are put in this situation.

Many of the enslaved and many of the free blacks and Indians and Irish, they found themselves in these situations. They found ways to rise like the phoenix out of the ashes of slavery, out of the ashes of the oppressed. They found ways to rise, because it's something inside of you that triggers you to really fight for what you want. It stunned many people, these heroic people like Matthew Ashby. How they were able to get this done without much problem.

Lloyd: There are a number of situations where slaves or free blacks would hire other slaves, or buy other slaves, there was, a what I think a carpen … ah, a shoemaker.

James: Yes, John Rawlinson. John Rawlinson is a real go-getter. He didn't let the constraints of society or the laws restrict him. He owns a tavern somewhere in Yorktown on the river. He owns a shoe shop, he has many people working for him. He has slaves. Some he inherited from his own family, and some he purchased. One thing about free blacks in this society with slaves, it's sort of a juggernaut for them. They are watched, not only by the whites in society, but the blacks in society.

Someone like a John Rawlinson, if there was some kind of rumor that he was treating his slaves badly, that would get back to the leaders of the black community. The elders and matriarchs and the preachers like Gowan Pamphlet would go knocking at his door and have a little talk with John Rawlinson. But John Rawlinson just did not let the constraints of this society hold him back. He obviously was able to read the law. He knew many things about the law. He gave testimony in the York County cases and many things. He was just one of those people.

Lloyd: As I remember it, if your mother was black, you were black. If your mother was white, you were not black. Matthew Ashby for instance, had been born of a slave father and a white mother.  So he never was a slave.

James: Correct.

Lloyd: He grew up as a free man who learned carpentry from somewhere, although I've never been sure of where he learned carpentry.

James: Well the distinction here is the law. In 1662, the law is written. Slavery had not been fully enacted here, yet. It's sort of the beginnings, you're kind of seeing slavery becoming part of society. The law read, "The condition of the mother is the condition of the child." Therefore, if your mother is white at this particular point in time, then the child normally is going to be free.

Even, as we know, before the law actually was enacted in 1670, even the black woman, her child was free, because again, they had not really made slavery legal yet. They had not enforced it. So, this is sort of the beginning, you're kind of seeing slavery become part of society. Sixteen-seventy, the law really nails it. Any Negro, mulatto, Indian, coming by land or sea from a non-Christian country, will be a slave for the rest of your natural life. There were 300, about 300 blacks in Virginia. Before that law was written, they were never, ever slaves. After that law is written, if you're coming over from Africa on those slave ships, your mother would deem who you would be in the society. Normally, that would be a slave.

Lloyd: I didn't know there were 300 non-slave blacks before 1670.

James: Yes.

Lloyd: I just assumed that from 1619 on, blacks were slaves.

James: Oh, no. That's where a lot of people don't know this, and they haven't studied it and researched it to understand this. It's about the law. The law had to be written first, before these Africans came over to be made slaves. It wasn't in Virginia. The first legal slavery was in Massachusetts. That law was 1632. And so, all of those Africans that were coming over from Africa are slaves. After the law is written. The law has to be written for English colonies before slavery is legal. Slavery is really about the law.

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