Newman Brockenbrough Roane: a historic & unconventional divorce in 19th Century Virginia

The Sheffey and Roane families have been peppered with more than a few unconventional individuals. Both families have produced noted – and notorious – free thinkers. These individuals were far less concerned with elite society’s norms and status quo…even if their thoughts or actions brought them universal censure from their peers. A handful risked outright ostracism from their world of exclusive Southern gentility and privilege.

Newman Brockenbrough Roane (1797 – 1835) was such a man.

Much has been written about Newman by his contemporaries in Virginia. Some of what’s been written, no doubt, was propaganda. He espoused beliefs, convictions and sentiments that made the Virginia slave owning elite’s blood run cold. However, in fairness, there is rarely smoke without fire. Exaggerated or not, it’s probably true that some of his conduct was less than exemplary. His side of the story, as far as it’s discernable to tell, has been left unspoken. It’s unknown if he left any personal writings. So we’re left with word of mouth, second hand accounts and intriguing court records from divorce proceedings painting a colourful image of a bad boy flouting the strict conventions of the late Regency period authority on par with Lord Bryon.

What did Newman do that shook polite Virginian society to its core? He fell in love with a slave, set her up as the mistress of his household, scorned his trophy society wife Evelina (nee Gregory) – and in so doing, overturned the delicate balance of conduct that ruled his world.

The basics of the story are thus: Newman began an affair with a slave named Viney (referred to as Biney in the court records). He fell in love with her, had two children with her (their names have yet to be uncovered), moved her and their children into his house, educated them…and flouted the conventions of the day by treating her as his wife.

In an unprecedented action for the time, Evelina filed for divorce. She cited all manner of physical, psychological and mental abuse. The alleged abuse did not stop with Newman, Viney and the two children were also cited as being Evelina’s tormentors.

Newman and Evelina’s marriage in 1823 united two wealthy and influential King William County, VA plantation families. Evelina’s testimony indicates that Newman moved Viney and his mulatto children into the house not long after the wedding. Newman indicated that Viney was the true mistress of the house and that he would do more for his mulatto children than any child he’d ever have with Evelina.

Evelina petitioned her family for support which they duly provided. Evelina and her family’s testimony state that Newman refused to give Viney and her children up. Indeed, if anything, he threatened to sell his estate, move to another state, and set up house with Viney and the children; leaving Evelina with nothing. This state of affairs lasted some five years.

It’s both a cliché and an understatement, however, the state of affairs for both women must have been intolerable. Viney, no matter how well loved she was by Newman, was a slave with no rights. Her position in the household, no matter how elevated, was placed on a most unsecured foundation. Her plight and those of her children rested upon the whims of her lover’s continued affections. Evelina, on the other hand, had to face the object of her husband’s affections every day. What was rightfully hers by marriage and by societal norms were disregarded, ignored and allegedly used as a source of torment.

In effect, Newman had made his slave mistress of his household and his white wife a servant. Evelina “worked the field”, cleaned house, fetched the water from the well, and engaged in activities typical of a servant or a slave. This is an aspect of the divorce case that shocked Virginian society. That society would find this case, and others like it, so repugnant that Newman would pay a harsh and heavy price. He would be made an example.

Evelina eventually fled to the house of her brother, a respected and successful attorney. Together, they laid the groundwork for her divorce petition. This would be the first divorce petition brought by a woman in the young American republic.

The one thing that comes through clearly in the divorce records, and the subsequent writings about the case, is the tangible competition between these two women.

Curiously, what seems to damn Newman in the eyes of his peers isn’t the ill treatment of his wife – it was his views on race relations. Contemporary accounts state that in word and deed Newman challenged the views of white supremacy and black slavery. He repudiated this systemic belief wholeheartedly. He believed in treating his slaves well and educating them. Why he believed this has not come down to us. Apparently, Newman spoke openly about educating his mulatto children; “making gentlemen of them”.

Evelina was successful in her petition. And Newman’s punishment? Sole custody of his son with Evelina was granted to Evelina – unheard of in those patriarchal times. Newman was forbidden from seeing the boy.

    He was also forbidden from ever marrying again.

This was the price paid for stirring deep feelings of anathema and repugnance within the slave owning elite of Virginia.

Did Newman stand by his great love? That remains uknown. Once ostracized, Newman became a non person within his former society. Whatever else he did seems to have passed unnoticed and unremarked upon. Newman’s story seems to have ended with his divorce. He died in 1835 and that seems to sum up the remainder of this man’s days. Census records provide no further clues.

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