Throughout my research, I’ve wondered why none of my father’s ancestors had been freed before the end of slavery. While the institution of slavery was abhorrent, the Sheffeys and the Roanes were acknowledged as benevolent slave owners. Yet, there were only rare instances where they freed slaves. And so far, research hasn’t shown that any of the slaves that were freed were kin to the white slave owning families.
Why would two families who openly acknowledged their slave relations not free them?
I’m working on a hypothesis that freedom for blacks in Antebellum Virginia was a dangerous world. Their papers could be stolen or destroyed – and without them freed blacks could (and were) easily kidnapped and sold back into slavery. Or perhaps it was Virginia itself. Antebellum Virginia was fairly hostile towards freed slaves and free African Americans (a subject of a future post). It did all that it could to make life difficult for all free African Americans, regardless of whether they had been slaves or born free), actively encouraging them to leave the state. Another difficulty was the limited opportunities for employment.
Given the above, the slave owning Roanes and Sheffeys may have simply believed their black relations were safer with them as slaves than as free men and women in Virginia.
I have, however, stumbled across an interesting family history involving generations of free African Americans in pre-Civil War Virginia..
My great uncle Crockett Sheffey, the Buffalo soldier (previous posts: http://genealogyadventures.net/2012/03/30/crockett-sheffey-buffalo-soldier-part-ii/ and http://genealogyadventures.net/2010/12/29/crockett-sheffey-buffalo-soldier/), continues to provide surprises. He is the son of my great-grandfather Daniel Henry Sheffey and his first wife, Mary Drew.
Crockett’s mother’s family tree follows below:
Mary Drew came from a long line of Virginian-born free African Americans. Her great-grandfather, John Drew (1752-1827) had been born free. As free black men, the Drews fought in the American Revolution as well as the War of 1812.
Whilst reported as being an ‘upstanding family of good character’, many in the Drew family were plagued through the generations by poverty. This is evidenced through the penalties they accrued through not being able to pay taxes. A move to Warren County, North Carolina by many in the family saw improved family fortunes.
In terms of researching the Drew family, I’ve only scratched the surface. However, a picture is building of their day-to-day life. It seems as though it was fraught with financial difficulties. However, contemporary accounts of them paint them as a proud, dignified and educated family. All in all it’s been an interesting slice of history to stumble across.