On May 4th, 1846, the Randolph People were manumitted by a court in Virginia following thirteen years of litigation.2 John Randolph, their former master, had been partly to blame for the controversy. He drafted three conflicting wills, only to recant the third on his deathbed.3. The first of these, written in 1819, would have granted full emancipation. The second, in 1821, made provisions for their lives beyond liberation. In his final will, he demanded that “executors may select from among my slaves a number not exceeding one hundred, for the use of the heir, the remainder to be sold.”4 However, his physician and two others were present at the time and provided eyewitness testimony of his retraction. This would have been legally sufficient, had it not been for the protestations of John’s family. The underlying cause for this legal battle was in many ways the bedrock of slavery itself. Freedom represented more than just a loss of workforce. It was a direct threat to the wealth of the Randolph lineage. Enslaved people were considered property, like the 8,207 acres of productive land on John’s Roanoke plantation, or his collection of thoroughbred horses.5 These human lives were treated as a form of currency representing white affluence. Because their literacy was prohibited by 1740, the Randolph People did not produce diaries or manuscripts while in legal limbo. They remained on the plantation, but their daily experience is unknown.
Helen Gilmore made a trip to the Roanoke Plantation. From the NAAMCC Rossville Museum Archives Collection (NAM MSS 2012).
There is no evidence that the Randolph People had knowledge of their potential manumission. However, John had convoluted ideas of slavery, at times professing sympathy for their plight. According to the Chicago Tribune, he once claimed that the greatest speech he ever heard came from a Black mother on the auction block.6 Like his cousin Thomas Jefferson, he continued to hold captive hundreds of Black people on the plantation. He would lose nothing in this gesture, as their freedom was granted only by his death. In 1833, he called for his physician, a Quaker by the name of Dr. Joseph Parrish, to come to his bedside at the City Hotel in Philadelphia. Randolph had been on his way to Russia from Baltimore, as he was recently appointed Minister to the imperial nation. However, he fell ill and never reached his destination. Despite Parrish’s efforts, Randolph’s health continued to decline. According to court testimony, Randolph requested emancipation for all his slaves and cried out “Remorse! Remorse!,” just before he died at 11:45 AM on May 24th, 1833.7
Helen Gilmore, a Randolph Freed People descendant, visits the Hart Plantation in Kentucky, where her husband’s family originated. She also would visit the Roanoke Plantation to learn about her own ancestors. From the NAAMCC Rossville Museum Archives Collection(NAM MSS 2012).
During the next thirteen years, Randolph’s family battled Dr. Parrish and William Leigh, John’s lawyer, in the courts. Meanwhile, those who became the Randolph Freedpeople remained in captivity, until the judge’s final decision.
1. Nick Thompson, “The History that Surrounds Us, Part 1” Piqua Daily Call, May 28th, 2014.
2. Frank F. Mathias, “John Randolph’s Freedmen: The Thwarting of a Will,” Journal of Southern History, vol 39, 1973.
3.. Accounts vary on the subject of John Randolph’s wills. In some, he is purported to have written only two wills, ignoring the one
written in 1819. Others recall wills in 1821, 1832, and 1833. Unfortunately, a fire during the Civil War destroyed the original documents and only newspapers and court cases referencing the wills survive. An article by Frank. F. Mathias published in The Journal of Southern History lists one such case, titled Coalter’s Executors et. al. v. Bryan and Wife et. al. Another commonly recycled misconception suggests that all three wills demanded release of his slaves.
4. “Randolph’s Will,” The Long Island Star, Brooklyn, NY: July 30th, 1835
5. Department of the Interior, “Virginia SP Roanoke Plantation,” National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form, July 24, 1973.
6. Roscoe Simmons, “The Untold Story,” The Chicago Daily Tribune, Chicago, IL, March 20, 1949.
7.“Last Illness of John Randolph,” The Tennessean. Nashville, TN: August 18th, 1835.