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People & Events
Africans in court
1641 - 1667

Resource Bank Contents

There were no laws in early in 17th-century Virginia that defined the rights, or lack of rights, of blacks. Four cases that came before Virginia courts illustrate their flexibility in the early decades of the colony -- a flexibility that would disappear as the end of the century approached. . .

• John Graweere Case: In 1641, John Graweere appeared before the court, asking for permission to buy the freedom of his child in order that he could raise the child as a Christian. Even though the child's mother was a slave, the court granted Graweere permission.

• Philip Cowen Case: At her death in 1664, a Mrs. Amye Beazlye left to her cousin a black servant named Philip Cowen. The will stated that Cowen should work for the cousin for eight years, then be given his freedom and three barrels of corn and a suit of clothes. At the end of the eight years, the cousin extended the contract three years. At the end of those three years, he informed Cowen that another nine years of service was due. In 1675, Cowen petitioned the court for his freedom. The court sided with Cowen, asking the owner to release him from servitude and to pay him the corn and the cost of a suit.

• Fernando Case: A bondservant for life, Fernando petitioned the court in 1667 for his freedom, arguing that, since he was a Christian and had spent several years in England, he should serve no longer than an Englishman was required to serve. The court dismissed the suit. Fernando appealed to a higher court. (Unfortunately, no record of the higher court's decision exists.)

• Elizabeth Key Case: The illegitimate daughter of an enslaved black mother and a free white settler father, Elizabeth Key spent the first five or six years of her life at home. Then in 1636, ownership of Elizabeth was transferred to another white settler, for whom she was required to serve for nine years before being released from bondage. At some point, ownership was transferred again, this time to a justice of the peace. When this owner died in 1655, Elizabeth, through her lawyer, petitioned the court, asking for her freedom; by this time she had already served 19 years. The court granted her her freedom. Unfortunately, the decision was appealed to a higher court. The court overturned the decision, ruling that Elizabeth was a slave. Elizabeth and her lawyer didn't stop there. They petitioned the General Assembly, which appointed a committee to look into the matter. The committee sent the case back to the courts for retrial. Elizabeth was ultimately freed.

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Related Entries:
Virginia's slave codes
Virgina recognizes slavery
Norrece Jones on the early status of Africans in Virginia
Betty Wood on the early status of the Africans in Virginia

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