Enfilade

230th Anniversary of Robert Carter’s ‘Deed of Gift’

Posted in anniversaries, the 18th century in the news by Editor on September 6, 2021

Staggered over time, the manumission took decades to complete. A certificate of freedom for one of the freedmen reads, “Dennis Johnston, a Male Negro aged about twenty seven years of dark Complexion five feet ten or eleven inches, stout and well made liberated By Benjamen (sic) Dawson, trustee for Robert Carter by Deed dated the 3rd day of November 1799, and duly recorded in the County Court of Frederick. Registered this 2nd day of February 1809.” (Winchester, Virginia: Stewart Bell Jr. Archives, Handley Regional Library).

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As reported by Eliott McLaughlin for CNN, yesterday was the 230th anniversary of the start of the largest liberation of enslaved people in the United States prior to 1863.

Eliott C. McLaughlin, “Like Washington and Jefferson, He Championed Liberty. Unlike the Founders, He Freed His Slaves,” CNN (5 September 2021).

It was 230 years ago Sunday that Robert Carter III [1728–1804], the patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in Virginia, quietly walked into a Northumberland County courthouse and delivered an airtight legal document announcing his intention to free, or manumit, more than 500 slaves. He titled it the “deed of gift.” It was, by far, experts say, the largest liberation of Black people before the Emancipation Proclamation more than seven decades later.

On September 5, 1791, when Carter delivered his deed, slavery was an institution, a key engine of the new country’s economy. But many slaveholders—including founding fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who knew Carter—had begun to voice doubts. That was the extent of their umbrage. . . .

Today, descendants of both Carter and the men and women he freed say more must be done to propel the largely uncelebrated deed of gift into the national conscience.

Meriwether Gilmore, who grew up in Westmoreland County, where Carter’s Nomini Hall estate once spanned 2,000 acres, is related to Carter on her mother’s side. Her sister is named after his mother and oldest daughter, Priscilla. Her father worked with Black churches in the area to commemorate the deed of gift’s bicentennial in 1991.

“I think the story of Robert Carter III is incredibly important,” she said, “and not just to glorify another rich, White man, but to show how personal convictions can be stronger than the status quo, that doing the right thing is often hard but important and that people matter—that people are more important than the work that they perform.” . . .

A religious wanderer drawn later in life to integrated churches, Carter III was not the first to free his slaves. Others, middle-class Quakers and Baptists among them, had released a few slaves here, a few there, but none rivaled Carter’s deed, which established a schedule to free 511 slaves, starting with the oldest and later their children.

Carter also allowed the freedmen to choose their last names so they could keep families together and pass down wealth. He ensured they had salable skills, arranged for them to buy or lease land, and bought their wares. He also spent a great deal on transporting them from his plantations to the Northumberland courthouse, and on lawyers to guarantee his heirs—some none too happy he was paring their inheritance—didn’t undo his wishes. . . .

The full article is available here»

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As noted in the article, the Nomini Hall Slave Legacy Project works to chronicle the descendants of the enslaved Africans who were freed by Robert Carter III from his Nomini Hall estate.

For Carter’s biography, see Andrew Levy, The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves (New York: Random House, 2005).