I’m venturing toe-deep into the subject of slavery. I cannot even begin to write eloquently about that atrocity; too many people have said it better than I ever could, and I don’t want to dive into it if I can’t do the subject — and my feelings about it — justice. So I will only write of this one, brief encounter I just had with historical slavery, and the visceral revulsion that came over me.
By simply being aware of the daily news you become aware of the vastness of modern slavery. Sex slavery, the bondage of smuggled illegal workers, child soldiers, and debtors’ slavery are all rampant problems worldwide. Not long ago I learned of more than 100 slaves who were held for a year inside a warehouse in Los Angeles, less than 60 miles from me, and forced to work as garment sewers. And only a month ago a woman of foreign royalty, living not ten miles from me, was deported for holding domestic slaves here.
Slavery is illegal in every country in the world, but not so long ago it wasn’t. Emancipation was only 57 years old when my mother was born, and she remembers the community’s animosity for a woman known as “Granny,” because she had been a slaveholder. That community, by the way, was in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, the South’s breadbasket, and the place burned to the ground by General Sheridan’s Northern troops during the Civil War. These small farmers, Mennonites, Methodists, and United Brethren, which included my mother’s family, opposed slavery, and some opposed all war as well.
But nothing about slavery has touched me as viscerally as this has. I just read the will of my fifth great grandmother and found that she was a slave owner, and it gave me the shivers. That will gives proof that there was slave ownership in my family, that it was this close to me — this close to being my generation’s responsibility. If things had gone differently with the Civil War, those slaves might still be in bondage, five or six generations later. What would I do?
Elizabeth Newton Berryman, like her husband before her, was a slave owner, and in her will she writes of the distribution of her human property to her heirs in the same breath as the disposal of an “old silver tankard.”
She lists over 50 slaves, including, “Old Negro Jack and Grace and their ten Children.” For each of the bequests of slaves, she begins, “I give to my son,” then lists the slaves’ names, ending, “to him and his heirs and assigns, forever,” meaning that the son and his heirs will own those slaves and their children and their children’s children forever. A family eternally damned to live as possessions, like cows or pigs or old silver tankards.
She writes that two of her daughters do not receive any slaves, because, “my daughter Sarah Douglas has had her part of the negroes and my daughter Katharine Vowles has had her part of the Negroes.”
I can only hope that my ancestors were not cruel, though slavery itself is the ultimate cruelty, and so any leniency heaped on slavery is of scant solace. Even now I feel a ridiculous and hopelessly useless anger at the will’s careless naming of human property. This is the will; the bold is my addition:
In the Name of God Amen I Elizabeth Berryman of the County of Westmoreland being weak in body but of sound and disposing mind and memory do constitute and appoint this my last Will & testament in manner following. Whereas my husband Benjamin Berryman by his last Will authorized me to make distribution of all his slaves to his six sons or the survivors of them and whereas three of the said Sons viz Newton, John and Henry died before they came of age and was not possesst of any of their fathers estate and whereas William, James and Maximilian are the surviving sons I give all the slaves with their increase to be divided as follows, Imprimis I give to my son William Berryman Old Negro Jack and Grace and their ten Children and bob which in his possession and Sall which I delivered to him as part of his fathers estate some years past but being a little Negro girl, that attended me I desired my son William to let her stay and wait on me which is now with me, as also I give him Rachel and Nel & Beck their Mother, to him and his heirs and assigns forever and allso my fathers Old Silver Tankard without a lid and also my fathers coat of arms. Af (&?) also I give to my said son William Berryman all the lands I bought of Cossom Bennett in the County of Westmoreland which I have given him by a deed and do confirm to him his heirs and assigns forever.
Item I give to my son James Berryman, Negro George, Jack, Anthony, Ben, Aaron, Suke, Nace, Mary, Tim, Ned, Jude, Peg and her youngest Child Gerrat, Winney, and Bettey to him his heirs and assigns forever.
Item I give to my son Maximilian, fourteen Negroes which he has in his possession as also Salley, Lilla and Frank which are yet in my possession, to him his heirs and assigns forever.
Item my will and desire is that my stock and household stuff of what kind soever Tobacco Corn Money etc shall be equally divided between my three children that is to say William James and Katherine Vowles.
Item my son Benjamin Berryman had his part of his fathers estate before his death, Item my daughter Rose Taliaferro had her part of her fathers estate before his death.
Item my Daughter Frances Foot has her part since her fathers death according to his Will and gave a receipt for it.
Item my daughter Sarah Douglas has had her part of the negroes and my daughter Katharine Vowles has had her part of the Negroes, the reason of my giving son William Seventeen Negroes and my son James but sixteen is because some negroes that my son William is possest of are very Deficient for old Jack & Grace are almost past labour, and one negro fellow with One eye and one hand, and another cripled Lad of very little use, therefore I think the division I have made will make them equal according to quantity and quality.
Item I appoint my sons William and James Berryman executors to this my last will and testament.
In withness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and seal this 14th day of June 1762 –
Elizabeth E Berrymen (her mark)
Signed Sealed and delivered In presence of Gerrard Blackstone Causeen
At a court held for Westmoreland County the 22d day of February 1763,
This last Will and Testament of Elizabeth Berryman decd was proved according to law by the Oaths of Josias Causeen and William Staples . Witnesses thereto and Ordered to be recorded and on the motion of said William Berryman One of the executors named in the said Will who made Oath according to law and together with Willoughby Newton his Security entered into and acknowledged Bond with Condition as the law directs Certificate is granted him for Obtaining a probate thereof in due form liberty being reserved to James Berryman the Other executor named in the said Will to join in the probate when he shall think fit -Teste
Nothing could feel more foreign than owning another human being, and yet that chapter of our nation’s history was only 150 years ago, so near our time that the last group of Civil War veterans lived until the 1950s; so near our time that my own mother knew former slave owners.
It’s doubtful that, even without the Civil War, slavery would have lived into our time. But it’s not impossible. Look how unsanctioned slavery thrives still, a tragic disgrace.