On February 20, 1856, Samuel M. Janney wrote to Northern friend and fellow Quaker Jane Johnson, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The letter explains an instance of the Quaker community in Loudoun County, Virginia attempting to purchase an enslaved family in order to grant them manumission.
In his letter, Janney refers to a Virginia law, passed in 1806, in which freed slaves had one year to leave the state or risk being returned to slavery. (In 1816 this law was slightly modified to include an opportunity for freed blacks to petition courts if they desired to remain in Virginia.)
The strategy of a non-enslaved black owning an enslaved family member might occur if they could save or borrow money to purchase a spouse or child, mother, etc. The purchase allowed family to stay together in Virginia – if the free black had the right to reside here. County court records show the seemingly bizaare scramble of free blacks, or as in this case, abolitionist Quakers, owning slaves. Black Codes in southern states were full of tangled traps, but occasionally the traps could be out-maneuvered.
As an aside, it is satisfying to read that Oscar Carey appears briefly in this letter, as he does on other pages of Nest of Abolitionists. He was a free black resident of Lincoln, and an important worker employed by the Janney family.
The letter transcript:
2nd Mo 20th 1856
I have been intending for a week past to write to thee but our Quarterly meeting & other concerns have engrossed my attention. In the early part of last week I went in a sleigh to Warrenton, about 35 miles, to buy & bring home the little col [colored] girl in whose freedom thou hast taken so deep an interest. The master, a German Jew by the name of Ab. Rineberg had written that he would comply with his promise & let her go for $384.48 provided I would take her mother with her, who is a cripple. This I suppose he did in order to avoid the risk of having the mother to support if she should become unable to work.
I agreed to the terms & took a bill of sale for both Jane Robinson & her daughter Eliza, the latter about 10 years old. The next day after my return home I executed a paper of manumission for each of them, which I placed in the hands of a Friend for safe keeping. The freedom of the mother is to take place now & that of the child (who is 10 years old) when she shall attain to 18 years of age. If the manumission is recorded our laws will require the mother to leave the state in a year & the child when she attains to 21 years. If it is not recorded I shall have to stand in law as the master, legally, while they stay here.
Jane is earning a dollar a week & there is no probability of her being a burden for many years.
Fauquier County where these people came from is one of the most thoroughly pro-slavery counties in our state, & Warrenton is the county seat. The object of my visit there produced some remark among the citizens, but the moral affect was good. The colored man (Oscar) who drove me heard some gentlemen conversing about it, when one of them said; “He has come all the way here through the cold to buy that little girl & make her free; why, there’s not a man in Fauquier who would have done it; It shows what a feeling the Quakers have for these people.”
There are instances frequently occurring in which a little help would enable slaves to buy their freedom, and we are very often called on to aid; but the means are not adequate to the demand. Sometimes their owners will take much less than their market value, & the slaves themselves sometimes have laid up a little money, or have near relatives who aid them.
Many free persons solicit donations both here & at the North to purchase their children and some of us always make it a point to give them something, if, after inquiry, we find their characters good & their prospects of obtaining freedom, encouraging. Persons in the free states when applied to, have not generally the opportunity that we have to inquire into the case, so that they generally give less than their benevolence would prompt because they are uncertain whether any good will accrue.
Sometimes the money advanced or part of it could be refunded & used again for a similar purpose. For instance in the case of Jane Robinson, child, the parents would gladly have agreed to return part of it from their future earnings, & I would willingly allow 100$ for the child’s services till she is 18 years of age, if she had not been otherwise engaged.
I mention these circumstances in order to lay it before thee some views that have at – been presented, concerning the slavery question, & its consequences.
The prospect before us seems to me to become more & more alarming. Many of the southern people interested in Slave-holdings are very much excited, the more slave-holders in the South & those opposed to slavery are not heard with patience & most of them dare not utter their sentiments. The agitation of the subject at the North increases and in some instances very injudicious speeches are made which exasperate the Southerners without any practical benefit.
Slaveholders say it is very easy for Northern people to make speeches against slavery, but that they are very unwilling to make any sacrifices. The sentiments of slaveholders may be pretty nearly composed as follows: “It is very easy for —
Unfortunately the letter’s last pages are missing. Janney seemed set to explain to Northerner Jane Johnson what the attitude of pro-slavery Southerners was toward people like herself. They saw her and fellow anti-slavery Northerners as hypocritical.
A little more insight into how some Lincoln Quakers worked together to support emancipation can be found in an unlikely place. William Tate, a fellow Lincoln Quaker and friend of Samuel Janney, noted on the middle of a page in his scrappy Memo book: “for Ann, Mary & Elizabeth Securities for Wilson Robinson for 1200 to buy his Wife & 4 Children” then written sideways below that sentence, Tate lists local Quakers, perhaps the ones who donated 1200 dollars “securities” for the purchase of Wilson Robinson’s enslaved wife and children. The list of names starts with Samuel M. Janney, and includes Dr. Nathan Janney, John Janney, John Smith, William Holmes, Thomas Nichols, Isaac Nichols, Joel Nixon, E. Hamilton, Benjamin F. Taylor, and finally Wm. Tate himself.
The purchase of Jane Robinson and her children was successful. Subsequent letters and documents make mention of Robinson family members living and working in the Lincoln area.
There are other examples of Quakers in Loudoun County purchasing enslaved blacks in order to grant them manumission. The practice was time consuming and expensive. It was also open to misinterpretation, since it resulted in court records showing anti-slavery activist Quakers “owning” slaves. We know from their own letters and private records that Samuel M. Janney, William Tate and like-minded neighbors were not benefiting from slavery but “gaming the system” in order to circumvent the cruel practice, one family member at a time.