Freedom Suits

Seventeenth-century Virginians created the law of slavery that for two and a half centuries ruled the lives of hundreds of thousands of people of African and of American Indian origin and descent. The law of slavery declared that some people were property and that children of enslaved women were born into lifetime slavery. Because the laws allowing enslavement of Indians changed several times, many enslaved Virginians filed freedom suits in the courts claiming that they were descendants of illegally enslaved Indian women.


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Robyn et al. v. Hardaway

A 1682 law permitted Indians imported on ships to be enslaved for life, unlike Indians captured in war or purchased from friendly Indians, whose terms of service were limited. In 1772 the General Court settled a dispute about how long that law remained in effect and ruled that it was repealed in 1705. Twelve men and women won their freedom and one shilling in damages. The case established an important precedent that Indians brought into Virginia before 1682 or after 1705 were not legally enslaved, and that descendants of the women could not be held in slavery.

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Charles Evans and others sued for their freedom based on their descent from Jane Gibson, "an Indian Woman, the ancestor." They submitted this genealogical chart as evidence in Charles Evans et al. v. Lewis B. Allen, filed in the Superior Court of Chancery for the Lynchburg District. Their attorney had a stroke and failed to appear in court, so the court dismissed the suit in 1821, and the plaintiffs all remained in slavery.


That was the law. Was it justice?