American National Biography Online
Flora, William (fl. 1775-1818), war hero and businessman, was
born probably in the vicinity of Portsmouth, Virginia, the son
of free black parents, whose names are unknown. On the eve of
the American Revolution fewer than 2,000 free blacks lived in
Virginia. The colony's statutes forbade the manumission of slaves
except those who exposed an incipient slave uprising. Consequently,
Flora, who was known as "Billy," was probably descended from
Africans who arrived in Virginia before 1640, when blacks were
treated like indentured servants rather than slaves.
Nothing is known about Flora's life prior to 1775, when he joined
Colonel William Woodford's Second Virginia Regiment as a private.
He furnished his own musket, suggesting that he had already earned
the esteem of his white neighbors, because the colony's statutes
also barred free blacks from bearing arms and from serving in
the militia. He fought against the British and Loyalist forces
commanded by Lord Dunmore, Virginia's last royal governor, at
the battle of Great Bridge in December 1775. On the morning of
the battle Flora was one of several sentinels guarding the narrow
bridge over the Elizabeth River, which separated the British
and patriot positions, when the British attacked in force. While
the other sentinels immediately retreated to the safety of the
patriot barricade, Flora fired eight times as he withdrew and,
still under enemy fire, removed the plank that afforded access
over the barricade. His bravery in combat earned him the approbation
of his superiors and a public commendation in the Virginia Gazette.
Nothing is known about Flora's activities during the rest of
the American Revolution except that he fought at the battle of
Yorktown in 1781. The suggestion that he fought against the British
for the entire duration of the war is highly unlikely, since
the vast majority of patriot soldiers fought for brief periods
and then returned home. In addition, Woodford and virtually the
entire Virginia Continental line were taken prisoner in 1780
after the successful British siege of Charleston, South Carolina.
It is more likely that Flora left the army in mid-1776, following
the departure of Dunmore's forces from Virginia, and returned
to arms four years later, when a British force commanded by the
traitor Benedict Arnold invaded Tidewater Virginia.
After the British surrender at Yorktown, Flora either began
or continued to operate a cartage enterprise based in Portsmouth,
hauling agricultural products and freight between the town's
wharves and the farms in the surrounding countryside. He also
operated a livery stable that rented out riding carriages. In
1784 he purchased two lots in Portsmouth and is believed to have
been the first black to own land in that town. For a number of
years thereafter he occasionally bought and sold houses and unimproved
lots. Exploiting the opportunities made available to him as a
consequence of his freedom while conducting himself in such a
way as to avoid exciting the jealousies of his white neighbors,
he acquired and retained considerable wealth. In 1810 he owned
three large wagons, three two-wheeled carriages, and six horses,
and when he died he willed two houses and one lot to his heirs.
He married a slave woman, but her name and the date of the marriage
are unknown. Flora purchased and freed his wife sometime after
1782, when Virginia's laws against manumission were liberalized
considerably. They had two children.
In 1807, when the HMS Leopard attacked the USS Chesapeake, a
wave of anti-British sentiment swept through Virginia and the
rest of the United States. Caught up in this patriotic fervor,
Flora, armed with his old musket, joined a number of local men
who volunteered for service against the British once again. Their
offer was courteously rejected by the local authorities. In recognition
of his service during the American Revolution, Flora in 1818,
along with other Virginia veterans, received a land grant of
100 acres in the Virginia Military District (now southwestern
Ohio). He probably sold the grant to one of the large land companies
attempting to settle the area. It is believed he died in 1820 in Portsmouth.
Flora was a hero of the Revolution in Virginia, a prosperous
businessman, and a respected member of the Portsmouth community.
Although these accomplishments may seem modest, they are significant
in that they were achieved by a black man at a time when the
vast majority of his white contemporaries regarded people of
African descent as lazy and inferior and consequently afforded
them second-class citizenship.
Flora's papers have not been located. A biography is Luther
Porter Jackson, "William Flora," in Virginia Negro Soldiers and
Seamen in the Revolutionary War (1944). See also Benjamin Quarles,
The Negro in the American Revolution (1961), Sidney Kaplan, The
Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution 1770-1800
(1973), and Burke Davis, Black Heroes of the American Revolution (1976).
Charles W. Carey, Jr.
Charles W. Carey, Jr.. "Flora, William";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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