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Commemorating Carter’s Deed of Emancipation and those set free

Posted on Wednesday, September 6, 2017 at 2:43 pm

Sheila Arnold Jones (Courtesy of Mary Ball Washington Museum & Library).

The public is invited to an historical program on Saturday, September 9, to commemorate Robert Carter III’s 1791 Deed of Emancipation and to honor the lives of the enslaved people he freed.

On September 5, 1791, Robert Carter III of Nomini Hall in Westmoreland County, Virginia, recorded a deed of emancipation to gradually free 452 people on his plantations in the Tidewater and Shenandoah. This was the largest single act of slave liberation in American history prior to the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln more than seventy years later in 1863.

Robert Carter III of Nomini Hall in Westmoreland County was born into the highest circles of Virginia’s Colonial aristocracy. He was the grandson of Robert “King” Carter, neighbor and kin to the Washingtons and Lees, and friend and peer to Thomas Jefferson and George Mason. Carter was one of the wealthiest men in America in the Revolutionary era, owning tens of thousands of acres of land, factories, ironworks, and hundreds of slaves.

Yet by 1791, influenced by the ideals of the new republic and a personal religious awakening, Carter undertook a remarkable and controversial act to free his slaves. Carter wrote, “I have for some time past been convinced that to retain them in Slavery is contrary to the true principals of religion and justice, and that therefore it was my duty to manumit them.” Carter’s gradual release schedule continued after his death in 1804 and eventually emancipated over 500 individuals. Carter’s former slaves seized their newfound opportunities for freedom, negotiating with Carter to farm his lands on their own and billing Carter for work they undertook for him. Many also united with family members who were still enslaved by hiring them from Carter. Despite tightening laws on free blacks, most of the freed men and women stayed in the counties where they had lived as slaves.

This year’s annual commemoration event features the presentation “Freedom! Or Not? Sarah’s Story” performed by storyteller and living history interpreter Sheila Arnold Jones. In the character of former slave Sarah, wife of George “Carterman,” Jones will transport the audience to 1805, a year after Carter’s death, at a time when his son George was trying to stop the emancipation process and Sarah’s children were still awaiting freedom. She will tell of the court challenges and family intrigue surrounding Carter’s historic act and share the heartache and fear for her children, along with her joys and the difficulties of being a free woman in Virginia. Music will also be performed by the First Baptist choir.

Sheila Arnold Jones has been performing historical character portrayals since 1998. She is the CEO and Lead Performer of “History’s Alive!” based in Hampton. Jones has given over 600 presentations for schools, churches, museums, and professional organizations in 26 states. She previously held positions at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation as Manager of Programmatic Outreach and Assistant to the Director of Public Relations, and continues to contract with the Foundation to present Historic Character Interpretation and to teach at the CWF Summer Teachers Institute.

The commemoration on September 9 begins at 11 a.m. at First Baptist Church, 3585 Courthouse Rd, Heathsville. Admission is free and open to the public, but donations are suggested to benefit the non-profit sponsors: Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Society, Mary Ball Washington Museum & Library, Historic Christ Church & Museum, and First Baptist Church of Heathsville. Following the program, First Baptist will offer plate lunches with a choice of chicken, ribs, or fish, with a drink, sides, and dessert. People are invited to stay and socialize over lunch, or they can order meals to-go. Reservations are requested to help with food preparations. For more information, contact 804-493-1862, 804-580-8327, or nnvhs@live.com.