Free blacks in Virginia: The Drew Family

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: and, 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:

The free African American Drew family tree (Virginia)
The African American Drew family tree (Virginia). Click the thumbnail to see the larger image.

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.

8 thoughts on “Free blacks in Virginia: The Drew Family

  1. I believe I am related to the free black Drew’s of Wythe Virginia, I can trace my family from Delbert (B.1911 in Indiana) to John(B. 1864 in Ohio) then James(born in Virginia1840) to Robert (born in Virginia1815. He was living in District 68 in the 1850 Census). I can not find Robert before the 1830 census. There is a Stanford Drew in the line above him in the 1830 census but I am unsure if there is a relation there or not. Do you know how I can proceed from here?

    1. Hello and thank you for the post.

      Close family members (uncles, cousins, etc) tended to live very near to each other at that time. So I would hazard a guess that there is close blood tie between Stanfield and Robert Drew. I haven’t discovered the exact nature of that relation. I’ve exhausted the digital/online trail. A visit to the Mecklenburg County VA Records Office will be in order (for me at any rate) to search through pre-1800 records. I have a feeling this family has a very interesting history especially as they were free as early as 1770s. I’m hoping I’ll be able to find it.

  2. Peace and love brother just ran upon this and I see my family names listed from the line of Hardaway Drew.

    1. Hello. I have a connection to a Hardaway Drew who was born in VA and moved to Warren County, NC. I would love to compare notes. If you’re interested, my email address is

  3. Hello. I have a connection to a Hardaway Drew who was born in VA and moved to Warren County, NC. I would love to compare notes. If you’re interested, my email address is

    1. Thank you. I’m afraid I’m currently wrapped up in 3 research projects. However, I will absolutely touch base with you in early 2021. In the meantime, my email is on the About page.

  4. Hello I have a 2nd Great-Grandfather Reuben Drew born in 1850 from Portsmouth/Norfolk area. Trying to find some relatives.

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