From John Hennessy (The story of Ellen Mitchell was first discovered several years ago by then-park-intern Jim Broomall, now on the faculty at Virginia Tech. Since Jim’s work, we have continued to add details to the story. What is presented here is a combination of Jim’s seminal work and that later research):
Something uncommon happened in Fredericksburg in the spring of 1859–something noted across the nation.
Ellen Mitchell, 27, was literate and, clearly, resourceful. Born of a slave mother and a white father, “she has a brunette complexion, but her features bear no resemblance to those of colored persons,” a reporter wrote. Her five children, ages 2-12 (Virginia, Horace, Josephine, John, and Martha) were “white,” conceived of a white father who, the Times reported, “has now deserted her, gone to California.”
At least through the 1850s (if not her entire life) she was owned by prosperous widow Hannah Coalter, the mistress of Chatham. When Hannah Coalter died in 1857, she sought to manumit her 92 slaves–in a fashion. She stipulated in her will that they could choose to immigrate Liberia or “any other free state or country in which they elect to live.” If they chose to remain in Virginia, Coalter permitted them to select their preferred owner from “among my relations.”
Those “relations”–the heirs to the estate–challenged the will in court, seeking to overturn Coalter’s attempted emancipation by arguing that because slaves were property and not citizens, they had no legal ability to make decisions on freedom, bondage, or place of residence. The Virginia Supreme Appeals Court agreed (it was a significant decision in the pre-war evolution of law as it related to slavery). The slaves of Hannah Coulter, including Ellen Mitchell, her 58-year-old mother Amelie Keating, and her “five white children” would not go free.
The new owner of Chatham, J. Horace Lacy, acquired most of the slaves from the Coalter estate–and so Ellen and her family would remain at Chatham, at least so it seemed. Ellen soon learned of Lacy’s plan to send slaves south to work on his plantation, “Boscobel,” near Monroe, Louisiana. The New York Times later reported that Ellen “peremptorily refused” to go and “Lacy, fearing the consequences, determined to sell her and her children.”
J. Horace Lacy was no newcomer to slavery, and certainly he had faced down defiance or resistance many times over. Exactly why he might have “feared the consequences” of keeping Mitchell and her children in his ownership is not clear (it seems unlikely a mother with five children would be a serious threat to run away or inflict violence). But, obviously, Ellen Mitchell had some leverage in this negotiation–indicative of the growing bargaining power of slaves as the institution sped toward its dissolution. In any event, Lacy decided to sell. Ellen Mitchell’s friends (we do not know whether they were black or white, or both) apparently advocated that the young mother and children be sold to Fredericksburg slave trader George Aler (see here for more about Aler).
Perhaps Lacy sold Ellen Mitchell with conditions, or perhaps what happened next was at Aler’s discretion (though we do not know him for his enlightened thinking), but in late 1858 he agreed to allow Ellen Mitchell to fundraise for freedom–hers and her children’s. The deal: if she could raise $1,000 and deliver it to Aler within three months, she could would thereby purchase her family’s freedom. He gave her permission, “simply on her word of honor,” to travel to the North to seek the funds.
Her journey began in March 1859, the clock ticking toward a March 30 deadline. With her son Horace in tow, she headed to Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City. In Washington she received $200, largely from members of Congress (reported the Times). In Philadelphia she made the rounds of churches and anti-slavery groups. The Pittsburgh Gazette and Fredericksburg News reported her journey,as did Ellen herself. “I met with some of the best friends in the north who ever lived in the world,” Ellen wrote to a relation of Hannah Coulter’s a few weeks later. “They took my case before the churches and in three days the money was raised.” A Philadelphia paper reported the creation of an “Ellen Mitchell Fund,” which by March 26 generated $347.10. In New York City Ellen surpassed her $1,000 goal by raising an additional “eight hundred and some odd dollars.”
Ellen also solicited funds from friends, including the kin of Hannah Coalter. She wrote enthusiastically to Coalter’s niece, Mrs. Patrick Gibson, “I want to thank you for your kindness in sending me twenty dollars, which was the first and largest sum I got in Virginia….I shall never forget your kindness.”
True to his word, on April 2, 1859, George Aler signed a deed of manumission, declaring the Mitchell family to be “entirely liberated, and entitled to the immunities of free persons, with which it in my power to vest them.” For his part, Lacy allowed Ellen to take her 59-year-old mother, Amelie Keaton because, Ellen wrote, “he don’t want her.” Ellen and her family moved to Cincinnati, where they appear on the 1860 census as residents of Ward 2. Curiously, the census reported Ellen’s personal estate as worth $7,500–a very nice sum for a newcomer to freedom. She was listed as a laundress.
Slaves purchasing their own or their family’s freedom was not uncommon. Most who succeeded spent years saving small sums earned by overwork or hiring themselves out.
But for a slave to acquire his or her freedom in such a public way was exceedingly unusual. The great mystery of Ellen’s case is why she–uniquely among Lacy’s nearly 100 slaves and the dozens or hundreds of slaves bought and sold by Aler–received the opportunity to buy her freedom. She clearly had advocates within the community. She was literate. She by all accounts had exceedingly light skin and, as noted, the New York Times described her children as “white.” It’s hard to imagine this did not work in Ellen’s favor. That she was literate and articulate surely helped too–her surviving letter to Mrs. Gibson shows she used both skills in her quest. Obviously, the idea that a light-skinned, literate mother of (virtually, if not legally) white children would be held in bondage stimulated anti-slavery souls in Philadelphia and New York. Perhaps it inspired George Aler too, for it is he who appears to be responsible for permitting this public quest for freedom. The Pittsburgh Gazette opined, “To those who think slavery not so good for white folks as for negroes this case makes a strong appeal.”
As interesting as Ellen’s Mitchell’s story is, she was not the only Fredericksburg slave who went fundraising for freedom. We have also a post on Fredericksburg’s other, overlooked slave narrative (that is, not John Washington’s): the memoir of Noah Davis. He too would mount a public quest freedom–one in which he used what I think is a novel tactic to fill his freedom chest.