Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library
5201 Woodward Avenue - Detroit , Michigan 48202
Volume 12, Number 1, SEPTEMBER 1993.
"SEEKING PROGENY OF FREED SLAVES".
Actions BY CARTER ANTE-BELLUM MARVEL.
(JUDITH HAYNES, DAILY PRESS, APRIL 1993)
(SUBMITTED BY CELESTINE HOLLINGS)
It has been 209 years (2000) since Virginia plantation owner Robert Carter III did something so dramatic and so radical, that it still can take one's breath away! 70 years before the Civil War broke out, he "Emancipated" his 485 slaves. According to researcher Ira Berlin (in 1991), of the University of Maryland, so far nobody has come forward to say: "One of my ancestors was freed by Robert Carter. " Well I, Henry Robert Burke, am a descendant of Winny Burke, emancipated by Robert Carter III , and I have come forward!”
In the summer of 1991, after the hoopla marking the bicentennial of Carter's Emancipation of his slaves, historian John Barden thought the publicity would turn up at least a few living, breathing, descendant of a person who had been Carter's "absolute property. Maybe someone related to "Prince, son of Mary, who was 5 years old in 1791 and lived in Westmoreland County; or kinfolk of "black Judith", "great Judith", or "little Judith", "Baptist Billy", or "Bricklayer James".
All the names are listed, page after page of them, in a document at the Northumberland County Courthouse in Heathville, Virginia. Eight years after the end of the Revolutionary War, Carter announced in the document that he had - "for some time past been convinced that to hold people in slavery is contrary to the true principles of Religion and Justice."
Following the name is the person's age, and a code for his/her "place of abode." Carter owned 64,000 acres and there are 18 such places, designated by Roman numerals. He had land across northern Virginia from the Shenandoah River to Prince William and Fairfax counties, and down the Northern Neck.
His "Freedom Document" set up a gradual manumission, or emancipation process, based on the slaves' ages, and Carter notes that he had, with great care and attention, tried to arrive at a schedule which would be consent to law and with the least possible disadvantage to his fellow Citizens.
Never-the-less, Barden says, "There was one very interesting response from Frederick county, where an anonymous letter-writer, probably a planter who had a plantation adjacent to Carter's, wrote, and I'm paraphrasing; - that it is essential as if a man set fire to his own house realizing that his neighbor's house would also burn down as well. In
In other words,- "you are planting the spirit of liberty among the African-American population and it's just not going to stop with slaves."
Barden, a historian at Tryon Palace Historic Sites and Gardens in New Bern, NC, has spent years studying Carter, who is the subject of Barden's doctoral dissertation. "Of all the things about this man, what is the most significant thing he ever did? I really believe that the emancipation was his most significant action. And perhaps it's one of the most significant actions in the history of Anglo-American and African-American relations!"
Carter had abandoned the Church of England to become a Baptist after having a vision of God, which commanded him to "free his slaves". He immediately set out to obey this directive, Barden says. He had enjoyed popular music and dancing, and had a fine collection of musical instruments that was the best in all of Virginia.
While Barden thinks Carter's manumission document was mostly a religious decision, given the recent revolt of the British colonies, "I think he realized that there was definitely a discrepancy between rhetoric of liberty and the reality of slavery in Virginia."
Carter's property of hundreds of slaves was acquired by inheritance and expanded by procreation. He was the grandson of Robert "King" Carter, probably the richest man in America before his death in 1736. "King" Carter outlived his son Robert Carter Jr., who died in 1728 when Robert III was 4 years old. Grandfather Robert "King" Carter raised Robert III, so the grandson became a principle heir to a large portion of "King's" property, including many of his slaves. "There is no evidence that Robert Carter III was a major purchaser of slaves," Barden says.
Barden says about the slaves, "I think nearly all of them did see freedom." Historical papers may give the impression that Carter's children were trying to subvert their father's schedule, but Barden thinks they simply were pressuring a trustee of the Carter estate to give a proper accounting. The emancipation process was still active years after Carter's death in 1804. When the slaves came before the court for review before emancipation, generally they were asked to state their names, Barden says, "and that's when we start to see family names and patterns emerging."
Twelve of Carter’s plantations were named for the Zodiac: Aquarius, Aries, Cancer, Capricorn, Gemini, Leo, Libra, Pisces, Sagittarius, Scorpio, Taurus and Virgo; plus Nomini Hall, Billinsgsgate, Coles Point, Old Ordinary and Mitchell’s Spread. The 500 slaves owned by Robert Carter III were assigned to groups on each of these plantations.
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