Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia
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Death or Liberty: Avenues to Freedom

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  • Undated petition of Phillip Gowen to Governor Sir William Berkeley, ca. 1675, Colonial Papers, Folder 19, No. 2, Record Group 1, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia., LVA
    Phillip Phillip Gowen Petition
  • Manumission of Francis Drake, dated 23 May 1791, Norfolk City Deed Book 1, 1784–1791, Local Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia., LVA
    Deed of Manumission
  • Virginia, Governor (1799–1802: Monroe) Executive Papers of Governor James Monroe, 1799–1802, Accession 40936, Letters Received, Record Group 3, State Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia., LVA
    Gabriel's Conspiracy Testimony
  • Virginia. Governor (1830–1834: Floyd). Executive papers of Governor John Floyd, 1830-1834 (bulk 1830–1833). Letters Received. Accession 42665. State Government Records Collection, Record Group 3, Library of Virginia., LVA
    Proclamation Concerning Nat Turner
  • Genealogical chart and Petition, Lynchburg City (Va.) Chancery Causes, 1807–1945. Charles Evans and others vs. Lewis B. Allen. 1821-033 Local Government Records Collection, City of Lynchburg Court Records. Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia., LVA
    Freedom Suit Claiming Indian Descent
  • Engraving of the box in which Henry Box Brown escaped from slavery in Richmond, Va. Song, sung by Mr. Brown on being removed from the box. Boston: Laing's Steam Press. [185-?]. Printed Ephemera Collection. Library of Congress. Washington, D.C., LOC
    Song about Henry Box Brown
  • Letter from former slave in Liberia. Rockbridge Co., Chancery Causes, 1781–1958, Exr. of Hugh Adams vs. Legts. of Hugh Adams, 1860-065. Local Government Records Collection, Rockbridge County Court Records. The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia., LVA
    Letter from Liberia
  • The (Fort) Monroe Doctrine. American Cartoon Print Filing Series. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress Washington D.C., LOC
    The (Fort) Monroe Doctrine
  • Civil War photographs, 1861–1865/ compiled by Hirst D. Milhollen and Donald H. Mugridge, Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1977. No. 0117., LOC
    Fording the Rappahannock
  • William Breedlove, Pardon Papers, 19 December, 1863, John Letcher Executive Papers, Record Group 3, Accession 36787. Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia., LVA
    William Breedlove Petition
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Death or Liberty:
Avenues to Freedom

From the beginning of the Virginia colony’s history some African Virginians were not held as slaves. As time progressed many free blacks were descendants of other free people who had won their freedom or who had never been enslaved in Virginia. A few free blacks were rewarded freedom after fighting in the American Revolution. After the passage of the 1782 manumission act, many slaveholders privately freed enslaved blacks. Enslaved African Americans sometimes purchased their freedom. A small number petitioned the Virginia legislature to win their freedom. Virginia’s free black population grew from about 3,000 to 6,000 at the end of the Revolution to perhaps 30,000 by 1810.

After manumission, many rural free blacks moved to cities because of the high demand for skilled labor and domestic service. Slaveholders successfully pressed the Virginia legislature by 1793 to pass a law requiring free blacks to register every year. That assembly also passed a law prohibiting free blacks from immigrating to Virginia. After Gabriel’s failed rebellion in 1800, a movement by urban whites led to restrictions on the residency of free blacks in Virginia. In 1806, the Virginia legislature passed a law allowing the continuance of private manumissions, but required every African American freed on or after May 1, 1806, to leave the state within a year of manumission or be reenslaved.

Virginia’s free blacks were the continual subject of white’s fears and suspicions in the nineteenth century. Especially after Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831, these fears were manifested in severe restrictions for free blacks. These new laws and rules especially restricted the assemblage of African Americans and the practice of their religions.

People Featured in This Unit:

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  • William Breedlove (ca. 1820–1871)
  • Henry Box Brown (1815 or 1816–after 1878)
  • Gabriel (1776–1800)
  • Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865)
  • Joseph Jenkins Roberts (1809–1876)
  • Nat Turner (1800–1831)
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