Few cases in American history are as riveting as the controversy surrounding the will of Virginia congressman John Randolph (1773–1833). On May 4, 1846, the people enslaved at Randolph’s Roanoke Plantation were officially freed. Three hundred eighty-three newly emancipated people attempted to disembark on the Miami and Erie Canal in Mercer County, Ohio. This was one of the single largest emancipations in American History.
Author and historian Gregory May reveals this surprising story during this online program and his book, A Madman’s Will: John Randolph, Four Hundred Slaves, and the Mirage of Freedom. May investigates how madness and scandal shaped John Randolph’s wildly shifting attitudes toward his slaves—and how endemic prejudice in Ohio ultimately deprived the freedmen and their descendants of the land Randolph had promised them. Sweeping from the legal spectacle of the contested will through the freedmen’s dramatic migration and horrific reception in Ohio, A Madman’s Will is an extraordinary story about the alluring promise of freedom and its tragic limitations.