Recent revelations of Georgetown University and the Catholic Church’s reliance on the slave trade have me reflecting on the intersection of religion and slavery that I’ve uncovered in my own family tree.
Through research, I’ve learned that some of my ancestors were owned by Quakers. Based on DNA testing, I likely descend from Quakers as well. Quakers migrated south from New England following the Revolutionary War to Northeast North Carolina (Bertie and Northampton Counties) and Southeast, Virginia (Nansemond County, now the city of Suffolk) where my family has deep roots.
Quakers were among the first religious sects, along with the Methodists, to denounce slavery. In Virginia, following the Revolutionary War, Quakers led the effort to repeal restrictions placed on a slave owner’s right to manumit their slaves by will or deed. Up to that point, manumission of the enslaved could only be granted as an act of the Virginia legislature. Quakers fought to end the slave trade and were leaders in the abolitionist movement.
Here are two examples — one positive and one quite difficult — on the impact Quakers had on the lives of my ancestors.
My 5th great grandmother Patsey White, born sometime in the late 1700s, shows up as the head of a free colored household in the 1820 census for Nansemond VA. She was likely born enslaved then freed by Quaker slave owners in Nansemond which was known as a Quaker asylum. The Virginia manumission law of 1782 allowed the emancipation of slaves by an owner through will or deed. Due to growing fears that the free colored population of Virginia would grow and over-run the free white population, a follow on amendment was passed requiring slaves freed after 1806 to leave the state within 12 months. So my guess is that Patsey was manumitted by Quakers after 1782 and prior to 1806. I’ve found no records for her and her family prior to 1782 and her presence in Virginia in 1820 shows that she had not been forced to leave the state. Her son, my 4th great grandfather Meredith White was born around 1800 and lived his life in Nansemond as well, so I’m guessing he was born free, although he could have been manumitted between 1800 and 1806.
My 4th great grandmother Frances “Frankie” Peele was born enslaved in the early 1800s. She was a strong woman who lived past the age of 95. Based on family history, her slave owner was a prosperous Bertie County plantation owner named Kader Biggs. From what I can tell, over the course of her life, Frankie bore 17 children, by at least 3 different men, only one of whom she chose.
According to family history, Frankie was raped by a Quaker our family knew as Mr. Peele, who was a neighbor and/or cousin of Kader Biggs. They likely had multiple children together but I know for sure that they had at least one daughter, my mixed race 4th great grandmother Sarah Peele. My family has generated multiple DNA matches to Quaker Peele descendants which supports this family history. All of our matches trace back ultimately to a Quaker named Robert Peele who was born in Nansemond, VA around 1681. Interestingly, Robert Peele’s grandson, Edmund Peele, a prominent Quaker from Rich Square, Northampton, North Carolina, would become famous for liberating 125 of his own slaves in 1827, giving them each $25 (around $700 in today's dollars) and arranging for their safe passage to Liberia, Africa.
Frankie was also bred by her owner Kader Biggs. She had children with an enslaved man named Simon, who according to family history was a “slave stud” used for breeding purposes on the Biggs plantation.
She had at least one child with her chosen life partner, a man named Lewis Peele with whom she cohabitated through slavery and married after slavery ended. As a father and husband I cannot imagine the pain and feeling of helplessness related to witnessing your wife falling victim to rape and breeding and having the power to do absolutely nothing about it. Or the love it took to take in children — like my 3rd great grandmother Sarah — who don’t look like you and who you know aren’t yours and raise them like they are your own. It’s the ultimate triumph of unconditional love. And it was acknowledged. Frankie’s children, while they all had different fathers, all took Lewis’ last name — Peele — which I chose to interpret as a testament to his strength and love as a father and husband.
Ultimately I might never identify all 17 of Frankie’s children or sort out who belonged to whom. But what I do know is that I’m inspired by her strength to live through all of this abuse and I’m proud to be her great great great great grandson.