Fundraising for freedom: Chatham slave Ellen Mitchell buys herself (and her family)

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.”

Chatham in 1863, just four years after Ellen Mitchells departure.

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.”

The laundry at Chatham. It seems likely that Ellen Mitchell, a lundress, worked in this building.

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.”

The New York Timess report of Ellen Mitchells fundraising efforts. Click to enlarge

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.

5 thoughts on “Fundraising for freedom: Chatham slave Ellen Mitchell buys herself (and her family)

  1. Another fascinating story of the struggle for freedom experienced by those who were enslaved. The fact that she was so articulate and learned indicates that she was seen more as a white person than one of color, since it was generally unacceptable and illegal to provide educational opportunities for enslaved “Africans.” Mrs. Coalter obviously recognized that slavery was somehow not right but her family did not want to set a precedent and I’m sure did not want to lose the value of the dozens of enslaved people that were included in the estate.
    Thanks for sharing these stories, they give a new perspective to our thinking about slavery and the system that perpetuated it.

  2. The story reveals a tragic but true occurrence of decidely the most shameful period in American history.

    If one could ever discovery collaborative material on the account provided here, I would imagine there is much more to the story.
    Puzzling factors:
    NYT states that Ellwn is white as well as her children.
    In the period covered here, literacy amongst slaves was feared particularly by Virginians and when it did exist was rarely flaunted fluanted.
    The Underground RR was extremely active giving rise to the anxiety over losing “valuable property” and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had been legislated. These factors contribute to the plausibility of a slave dealer “permitting” a woman to leave the state with at least one child to go north in hopes of buying her freedom. Obviously, it occurred, but were there other circumstances we have yet to discover?
    As to a position attributed to Horace Lacy, it may or may not have been the case, but all we have is a statement appearing in the NYT, without assignment to spokesman or resource.
    Fascinating!

  3. Great story. As interesting as the methods that Ellen Mitchell employed for achieving her freedom (public fund-raising in a near crowd-sourcing manner that followers of GoFundMe could be proud of), is the fact that Ms. Mitchell’s owner, Hannah Coalter, wished her slaves to be free and put that wish into writing. I’ve noted a number of examples of this kind of apparent thinking among antebellum slave-owners… Curiously they left the heavy lifting to their survivors to carry out. I have often wondered if this method was a ploy to maintain loyalty among their slaves (a future promise), while knowing full well that their survivors (or the courts) would not alter the status quo. It’s the exception rather than the rule that any slaves were ever freed via this method. Knowing the precedent, the attempt smacks of dis-ingenuousness — and perhaps a bit of cruelty. Or maybe I am just extremely cynical?

    • My sense is that in Hannah’s case, her instinct to do what she saw as a good was overawed by a legal tide then sweeping the country. Remember, the Coalter decision came on the heels of Dred Scott. I have never done the research to know if other similar wills were in fact executed faithfully prior to the Coalter case.

      In the broader sense, I think the motivations of slaveowners ran the gamut of cynicism to generosity, just as we do today. I sense no insincerity in Mrs. Coalter’s will–in fact, just the opposite. Of course this ostensible attempt at kindness is highly relative–it took place in the context of a system that in its roots and results is abhorrent to us today.

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