Before he died in 1828, Edwin Lanier, of Prince George County, wrote in his will that Jane, an enslaved woman, was to be freed at his death. Jane continued to live in Prince George County, but the bliss of freedom proved to be short-lived. To recover debts owed them, creditors of Lanier’s estate had Jane arrested in 1836, arguing that the unpaid debts annulled Jane’s emancipation. From her jail cell in Petersburg, Jane countersued, declaring that Lanier’s estate was sufficient to repay his debts. To support her claim that she was wrongfully imprisoned because she was free and no longer enslaved, she included copies of Lanier’s will and her freedom certificate as exhibits in the suit.
The creditors disputed Jane’s claim that the estate was large enough to repay Lanier’s debts and argued that her value as a slave had to be included in the valuation of the estate according to a 1792 law. Further, they pointed out that Jane was in violation of an 1806 law requiring emancipated slaves to leave the commonwealth within twelve months of their emancipation. By remaining in the commonwealth eight years after her emancipation, Jane and her children risked being sold back into slavery.
In 1840, the white male judge ruled in favor of Lanier’s creditors. To satisfy the debts, Robert C. Traylor, of Petersburg, bought Jane’s labor and that of her children for fourteen years, agreeing to keep them “as servants & apprentices, & not to carry them beyond the limits of this Commonwealth & to provide for their comfortable maintenance & support & to discharge them from his service & control at the expiration of the term.” Twelve years after receiving her freedom, Jane found herself in bondage to another.
Was it fair for Jane to lose her freedom for something she was not responsible for?
That was the law. Was it justice?