The ‘peculiar institution’ in and near Williamsburg – Daily Press

This is the third in a three-part commentary by Terry Meyers, Chancellor Professor of English, Emeritus, at the College of William & Mary. Much of the material here is drawn from his essays on William & Mary and slavery. His plays led to the dedication by Hearth University: Memorial to the Enslaved on May 7.

Another view of the local harshness of slavery can be seen in an advertisement that John Wesley quoted in a London newspaper in early 1774 about a slave trying to escape bondage. The advertisement, in the Virginia Gazette (Purdie and Dixon, April 29, 1773), specified that “the said man is an outlaw, and I will give ten pounds a reward for his head being severed from his body, or forty shillings if he is brought back alive”.

And in 1865 Laura S. Havilland visited Williamsburg and related an episode in Yorktown:

A woman, giving a sketch of slave life, said that a young girl went to a night meeting contrary to orders, and for this she was stripped naked and whipped in the presence of the other slaves, the master telling her -even pulling the whip. As she begged for mercy, her master replied:

“I will have mercy on you.”

“Good God, come help me.”

“Yes, I will help you” (and continued to whip).

“Come, Lord, now; if you don’t have time, send Jesus.

“Yes, I am your Jesus,” retorted the inhuman persecutor, and he continued to draw the whip until thirty strokes were well struck.

In Williamsburg, Havilland saw “old slave pens” (the location of which has yet to be discovered by Colonial Williamsburg). And among several accounts of newly liberated black people at Kingsmill Plantation, she recounted visiting what appears to be the still existing kitchen: In the “loft” lived two sisters aged 75 and 80, including the youngest brother, aged ‘about 60 years old, crazy. His wife and children were all sold to him down the river, and he cried for so long that he lost his mind and has never found his way back since. She also heard, at Kingsmill Plantation, stories of “many cruel overseers, who would take the life of a slave, to get their name as ‘boss overseers’.” by those they were overseeing, “an old man lowered his head, then looked up and said, hesitantly, ‘I knew it in my day, but massar still keeps it mighty, and said the overseer would is fled, and he lies one right away.'”

A Quaker teacher at a local Freedmen’s Bureau school in Fort Magruder, Margaret Newbold Thorpe, pointed out most locals’ antipathy to the education of former slaves and drew attention to the KKK. An old man had been taught to read by a white lady, though his master would “whip them all to pieces” if he found out.

Thorpe confirmed conditions at Kingsmill Plantation had been difficult. She mentions the “scarred backs” of former slaves in the region, black families “torn apart and beaten because they cried” and daughters “sold to a fate infinitely worse than death”.

We also have the testimony of Eliza Baker, born into slavery in 1843 in Williamsburg, who recalled the town’s whipping post with a nearby iron cage to hold slaves before and after trials. She recounted the treatment of slaves and the threat of being sold: “some [whites] treated them well tough, and some well. They made you do what they wanted you to do, and if you didn’t do what they wanted, they put you in their pocket. She explained, “That means the trader n —– would get you.” She recalled the slave auctions: “From the block of Court House Green I heard many screams on the block.” The auctioneer, Moses Harrell, “would shout them out. “Here they are !” he would cry. Hardly any parent would be prepared to see their children sold. A slave found with a book could be whipped. If left after 9 p.m.: 39 lashes. (Harrell, by the way, is honored in Governor’s Lands with streets, Harpers Mill and Moses Harper Roads, named after him, albeit in corrupted form).

Virginia slaves had long protested the injustice done to them. One of them had written to the Bishop of London in 1723 asking the English rulers to “release us from this Cruell Bondegg”. And long before Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, black people resisted – and paid the price.

James Blair noted a planned rebellion whose leaders foolishly thought Christians could not enslave other Christians: “Patrolling and whipping anything abroad at odd hours, they soon smashed everything purpose, and in one county, where they had been discovered speaking of a general cutting off of their masters, there were four of the ringleaders hanged… So now all is very quiet.

And one of the men enslaved by the College had the audacity to assert his equality with whites to a member of the faculty, Samuel Henley. Henley asked why if Adam and Eve were white the slave was black – the slave replied that all he knew was that if you pricked him his blood would run as red as any white .

Little wonder, then, that local blacks well into the 1940s celebrated Emancipation Day, January 1, with parades and festivities. R. Beecher Taylor wrote in 1897 in the Richmond Planet about the special joy of old people who had actually experienced slavery and then freedom: “a great crowd [of Williamsburg’s African-Americans] followed the procession, inspired by the sweet melodies of martial music. Several elderly siblings were so full of patriotism and music [that] from time to time they would heel and advance a little (two steps) against the church.

To learn more about slavery at William & Mary, visit

Comments are closed.