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AfriGeneas Free Persons of Color Forum

FPOC in court cases, Frederick & Clark Co., VA

African Americans & FPOC in court cases (excerpts from Cartmells History) including anonymous slaves, Negro Juliet (vs. Bennett Russell), James Catlett alias Jim Wells, Sam Brock, Mundy Robinson, pregnant woman Robinson, Mary Phelps

Surnames: Avis, Berkly, Brock, Byrd, Carr, Catlett, Cooley, Lucas, Miller, Parker, Phelps, Robinson, Russell, Rust, Wells
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Ive been searching through Cartmell's history of Frederick Co., VA for any references to African Americans. With the exception of Aunt Chloey, Tabby Banks, and Westley Honesty, they rarely are mentioned by name in the index, although a few headings refer to Negro Churches 520-1, Negro Public Schools 174, Negro Traders Jail 162, and Negroes 88, 111, 154, 202, 374-5, 521-2. Ive copied the relevant passage for Chloe, an original African, in a previous post. She is one of the rare exceptions to the rule that individual slaves or free people of color were noted only when they appeared in court. Most references are to African Americans who committed homicides, or court cases involving emancipation of slaves, or cases that underscored the increasing difficulty of remaining as a free person of color in a slave state such as Virginia. While some free people of color chose to move to a so-called free state (which in many cases had its own laws restricting the rights and curtailing the freedom of African Americans), others were too poor or too frail to relocate; or they remained in a familiar place because of community ties, which often included family members still held in bondage. It is remarkable that African Americans, particularly those tried for murder or suing for their freedom, were ably represented by attorneys, according to the author of this text. Coming after the litany of murders, the authors interpretation of the motives of Mary Phelps is also remarkable.
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T.K. Cartmell, Shenandoah Valley Pioneers and their Descendants: A History of Frederick County, Virginia, Chapter XXI, The Old Justices Court, pp. 108-109; 111

It was during Judge Carrs term that a celebrated criminal trial occurred. This was known as the Doct. Berkly murder case. Three of his negroes, one woman and two men, committed the horrible murder in the Spring of 1818. His body was boiled and reduced to a mass, then burned, together with his clothing. His brass buttons were found in the ashes; and through the efforts of his overseer, Robinson, the negroes were brought to trial and convicted, and hung in July of the same year. The other slaves were transported to the Dry Tortugas. Berklys home passed to John Rust. This was in the section now Warren County. (p. 108)
After Judge Parkers appearance in 1851, one of the cases tried by him in Nov., 1851, was known on the docket as Bennett Russell vs. Negroes Juliet, etc. This case had torturous course through the courtsmany hearings, and was not closed until Feby. Term, 1856. The plaintiff was the son of Bennett Russell, who by several clauses in his will, provided for the emancipation of a large family of his slaves. Russell lived in Clarke County; the case was ably conducted on both sides; the legal lights from Clarke and Frederick attracting large crowds of people at every trial, and was one of the most hotly contested cases heard in our courts. The Russell heirs sought to annul the will, while the negroes through their able counsel, met the issue in a determined way, holding that the will plainly indicated what the jury should do. The case was started in the Clarke Court, but by agreement was transferred to Frederick. The jury, after many days of patient attention to testimony, and the able arguments of counsel, rendered a verdict favorable to the negroes. They considered the emancipation clauses sufficiently plain, and the will should stand. The Court ordered the will to be recorded in Clarke County, and let the case rest. The executors resorted to delays, and the negroes waited long for their freedom. (p. 109)
At the June Term, 1858, we find the Circuit Court spending many days over the trial of another murder case. This was the notable case of James Catlett alias Jim Wells, a well known negro of the County, who killed Sam Brock an inoffensive and much esteemed negro of the town. Catlett was found guilty of murder in the first degree, and sentenced June 26th to be hung. Lewis A. Miller, Sheriff, and his deputy John G. Miller, erected the gallows in the jail-yard and executed the order of court August 6, 1858.
At this Term the Grand Jury indicted quite a number of free negroes for remaining in the state without lawful permission. At that time a law on our statute books required all free negroes to report to the Clerk for registration, and then to obtain certificates from the court to remain for one year only, when they were required to repeat the process. If they could prove good character and were in the employ of some responsible person, they were allowed to remain. In the southern end of the County there was one family that gave much trouble from their influence among the slaves. Mundy Robinson and his large family were indicted, and this led to the indictment of many others. These cases remained on the docket until the Civil War virtually closed all proceedings.
At the June Term, 1859Margaret Lucas, a free negress, as the minute reads, was convicted of murder in the second degree.
In the Spring of 1861, the Court tried ____ Robinson for murder. She was one of the Mundy Robinson free negroes mentioned above. This woman was employed by Benjamin Cooley, who then lived at Belle Grove. She murdered Mrs. Cooley while the two were in the meat house, using a meat cleaver. The woman was promptly tried; the verdict was guilty of murder in the first degree. The prisoner was remanded to jail without being sentenced. Her counsel, Col. Richard E. Byrd, moved the court to set aside the verdict. During the same Term, the prisoner was brought into Court. As sentence was being pronounced, Col. Byrd raised a point of law that brought the Court to a standstill and every member of the bar to their feet. Col. Byrd announced to the court that the prisoner raised no objection to the verdict of the jury; but did object to any judgment of the Court that would endanger the life of the unborn child. Col. Byrds law was sound, but evidence must be produced to the Court that such conditions existed. Old authorities were produced; and the Court being satisfied as to what course to pursue, ordered a jury of eight women to be summoned by the Sheriff to appear forthwith in court, to be sworn to visit the jail and enquire into the prisoners condition, and report their verdict to the court. When the writ de ventre inspiciendo was issued, old attorneys declared it was the first to issue in Virginia; and the author has never found in any court in the Sate any record of such issue. Our old friend John G. Miller was sheriff. With his usual promptness, he proceeded to execute the strange writ, while the Court and anxious spectators awaited results. Mr. Miller returned after an hours absence, greatly excited, declaring he could find no woman who would obey his summons, and that some of the Potato Hill women threatened him with bodily harm. He was informed by the Court that he and his deputy must execute the order at once. Mr. Miller stated that his deputy, James B. Russell, was out of town, and that he would resign before he would endure another experience. The Court announced that his resignation would not be accepted until he had executed the writ; the jury was summoned, and after due deliberation returned their verdict: whereupon the prisoner was remanded to jail without sentence; and we may add, she was never executed. Pending the occupancy of the town by the first Federal troops, this prisoner disappeared. (pp. 110-111)
November 16, 1860, this minute appears and is given as a sample of the action of Court relating to this class of persons:
Mary Phelps a free negro woman, filed her petition to be reduced to slavery. Notice was posted at the front door of the court house for one month, that she would move the Court to direct that she and her children become the property of the wife of John Avis. The emancipated slaves were required to remove to some free State; failing to do this from choice, by reason of their attachment to the white family who had been their owners, they selected some member of that family and secured permission to return to their former state of slavery. This indicates how the old slaves regarded their ownerspreferring to remain with those they loved rather than enjoy the boon of freedom in a strange land where the people did not understand the relations between master and slave. (p. 111)
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18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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