In Their Own Words

In their own words

Old sources give fresh voice to slavery’s story. Manager of African American programs Tricia Brooks explains how we know what we know.


Harmony Hunter: Welcome to the podcast, I’m Harmony Hunter, filling in this week for Lloyd Dobyns.

Our guest today is Tricia Brooks, who is manager of African American programs, and Tricia, you are involved right now in a large effort to commemorate the 30th anniversary of African American programming here at Colonial Williamsburg. Let’s just start, tell me a little bit about the anniversary and the programs that you’ve created and selected to sort of mark the occasion.

Tricia Brooks: Well we started with a weekend celebration where we presented a lot of various programs, some past programs, and some of our present programs and a few programs that we have recently introduced. Also in October we’ll be having a National Town Meeting as part of our celebration of the 30th anniversary of African-American history.

That will be an opportunity we’re very excited about to talk about 21st century issues of race and citizenship, and to look at the changing political landscape that we see today, and how that is rooted in that 18th century struggle for freedom and equality. Our next piece of the celebration will be July 18th and 19th. We will be doing a similar weekend activity where we will be having a lot of different activities going on throughout the Historic Area.

We will be taking a focus on family and community history, and we will be looking at how do we know what we know about the 18th century? How have we created the experience that people have when they come and visit Colonial Williamsburg, and linking that to how will people know about us in the future and encouraging people to take some time to look at their family history and their community history and do a little genealogical research, or research on their community’s past.

Harmony: So let’s talk about some of those sources. How do we know what we know?

Tricia: Well the “In Their Own Words” tour talks not just about the perspective of enslaved people in Williamsburg, but also the perspective of white people towards the African American community. So we have, we use in that tour, several different documents: letters and legal documents from the 18th century.

One of the documents that we use is a letter that was written by a slave in 1723, a slave from Virginia, an anonymous slave. We don’t know who it was. The slave was writing to the bishop of London, pleading for freedom for enslaved people.

We also use a letter that was written by Virginia Governor William Gooch. That letter is justifying laws that were passed by the assembly in 1723. The laws seemed pretty harsh to the government in England. They were laws that dealt with free blacks, and they were very restrictive of the activities of free blacks. So, it’s Governor Gooch explaining why they felt it necessary to restrict the rights of what were considered some of the king’s subjects.

We use documents related to a free black family, the Ashby family, as Matthew Ashby worked towards trying to free his family. We have documents related to that as well. There are some other documents that we use in that tour from newspaper records. Some guides use runaway ads, and Governor Dunmore’s proclamation that he issued during the Revolution, offering freedom to people who were slaves of rebel patriots.

Also there’s a letter that was written to the Virginia Gazette urging masters to explain to their slaves why they should not run away to Dunmore to get their freedom. So there are a variety of different types of documents that are used in that tour.

Harmony: Talk to me a little bit more about the anonymous slave letter. You said it’s anonymous – can we understand anything contextually about that slave?

Tricia: Well what we know from the letter, we know that the slave was mulatto. One of the slave’s parents was white, one was African. So the author of the letter speaks about the situation of, the unique situation of the parentage of having one white parent and one black parent.

The author of the letter indicates that his or her brother is his or her master. So, appealing to the bishop of London, the author makes an appeal to the bishop of London on the basis of being Christian and, is it proper for a Christian to own another Christian is one of the arguments made in the letter as well.

Harmony: So you’ve brought a copy of the letter with you. Will you read us a short passage that people, that one of the tour guides might read on the tour?

Tricia: Certainly. “Most honored sir, amongst the rest of your charitable acts indeed, we your humble and poor parishioners do beg sir, your aid and assistance in this one thing which lies, as I do understand, in your lordship’s breast. Which is that your honor will, by the help of our sovereign lord King George and the rest of the rulers will release us out of this cruel bondage.

This we beg, for Jesus Christ, his sake, who has commanded us to seek first the kingdom of God and all things shall be added unto us. And here it is to be noted that one brother is a slave to another, and one sister to another, which is quite out of the way. As for me, myself, I am my brother’s slave. But my name is secret.

Harmony: So he is making an appeal, as you said, on the basis of Christian principles, Christian morals. But you’ve also got, on the other hand, your letter from Governor Gooch. What is Governor Gooch’s perspective?

Tricia: Governor Gooch, first of all, his perspective is that certainly Africans and African-Americans are by no means equal to Englishmen. He feels very strongly that those who have been manumitted from slavery, those who have been freed, have this feeling that it is not appropriate that they should be equal.

As a result, it was necessary to pass a series of very restrictive laws in 1723 that made it illegal for more than five African-Americans to meet together. That free blacks would not have voting rights – there are a number of provisions in this law. This is also the time at which they made it much more difficult for people to gain their freedom.

They were very concerned about a growing free black population. So, there was a law that was passed much earlier, in 1662, which said that the condition of the mother was the condition of the child. If your mother was free, you were free. If your mother was a slave, you were a slave. So they were very concerned about increasing the number of free blacks, and thus increasing the number of children who would be born free. So they passed a law that said that the only way you could gain your freedom was if the governor’s council agreed that you could be free.

Your master could not say, “I would like to free this slave.” The governor’s council had to say that a slave could be freed. 1723 was also the time at which they determined that no African-American could testify against a white person. African-Americans could not serve on juries, and slaves would be tried not in the court where other crimes were tried, but any capitol crime of a slave would be tried in a local court, rather than in a governor’s court.

Harmony: Do we know of any slaves who were able to petition and gain their freedom after that 1723 restriction was put in place?

Tricia: There were some who were able to gain their freedom. Generally the provision says that in order to gain your freedom you must have done some type of honorable act. So, saved the life of your master, for example. There are a few slaves who are freed on the basis of cures for diseases that they find. We do know that there is a slave family that is discussed in the tour where the husband in the family is a free man.

He was born an indentured servant; he had to serve 31 years and then gained his freedom. He married a slave woman, which, slaves were not allowed to legally marry. So he married, in his heart, he married a slave woman. But the marriage was not recognized as such. They had children together and he was able to convince her master, and the master of his children, to allow him to purchase them.

Harmony: What do you want people to leave this tour knowing that they might not have known coming into it?

Tricia: I think the most important thing is for people to really have the opportunity to personalize the experience of slavery. There are a number of people who resided in Williamsburg that are brought up in the tour. To really have people be able to identify that theses were individuals, and get a real sense of the individuality.

Also, I think to understand that it was a very complex system with a lot of contradictions and paradoxes, and that it was a system that was developing, and not a system that was kind of born full-form. It took many years for the system to be built and developed and a variety of different laws to be passed and to create the final sort of system of lifetime servitude that was passed on from mother to child.

Harmony: Well thanks for being with us today.

Tricia: Thank you very much.

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