Black ancestry shines new light
For the Dayton Daily News
Thursday, January 30, 2003
Until last year, my only connection with Black History Month was a fellow genealogist who contacted me because my ancestor had owned her ancestor.
She wanted to know if I had any of the records. Until then, I did not even know that an ancestor had owned slaves, but I shouldn't have been surprised.
As a genealogy nut since I was a small, I knew my pedigree was filled with Southerners--white Southerners.
But Black History Month was something that made me a little bit uneasy--would someone come after me with a lawsuit making me responsible for
the sins of my forefathers? Any celebration of that was for "other" people.
But then I found out about Elizabeth Key.
Elizabeth Key or Kaye was born in 1630 to an unnamed black slave mother and Thomas Key, a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses.
Key represented pre-Revolutionary Warwick County (today's Newport News), but his wife lived across the James River in Isle of Wight County, where she
owned considerable property.
The Keys were English-born and likely considered "ancient planters," pioneers who had come to Virginia before 1616, remained for three years,
paid their own passage and survived the Indian massacre of 1622.
At first, Thomas Key tried to deny that he had fathered Elizabeth, blaming instead an unidentified "Turk." Paternity became an issue years later when
Elizabeth needed to prove in court that her father was a free man.
A man who knew the family, Nicholas Jurnew, 53, testified in 1655 that he had "heard a flying report at Yorke that Elizabeth a Negro Servant to the
Estate of Col. John Mottrom (deceased) was the Childe of Mr. Kaye but ...Mr. Kaye said that a Turke of Capt. Mathewes was Father to the Girle."
However, paternity was established.
Elizabeth Newman, 80, testified that "it was a common Fame in Virginia that Elizabeth a Molletto, now(e) servant to the Estate of Col. John Mottrom,
deceased, was the Daughter of Mr. Kaye; and the said Kaye was brought to Blunt-Point Court and there fined for getting his Negro woman with Childe,
which said Negroe was the Mother of the said Molletto, and the said fine was for getting the Negro with Childe which Childe was the said Elizabeth."
The court documents are pretty dramatic--and sometimes graphic--reading.
"The deposition of Alice Larrett aged 38 yeares or thereabouts Sworne and Examined Sayth that Elizabeth ...twenty five yeares of age or thereabouts
and that I saw her mother goe to bed to her Master many times and that I heard her mother Say that shee was Mr. Keyes daughter."
Once paternity was established, Key didn't try to duck his duty again. Elizabeth, who was referred to as "Black Besse" in various legal documents
of the period, was baptized in the Church of England. Sometime before his death in 1636, Key put Elizabeth in the custody of her godfather, Humphrey
Higginson. Higginson was required to care for her as his own child and set her free in nine years when she was 15 years old.
At this time, both black and white servants were likely to be indentured for a period of years and it was common for them to get their freedom. In
Elizabeth's case, her father did not intend for her to be kept as a slave, but for Higginson to be her guardian until she was of age.
It's not clear what happened, but Higginson did not keep his promise. He was obligated not only to care for her, but to take her with him if he were to
return to England. And he did return to England, but left Elizabeth behind and in the ownership of a Col. John Mottram, Northumberland County's first
Elizabeth, at age 10 in about 1640, was one of the first non-native settlers in the wilderness of Northumberland County. Her future changed dramatically
as Mottram took her 90 miles away from her birthplace to be a servant. She may have never seen her mother again. She was without a contract and,
conceivably, could be a slave forever.
There is no record of Elizabeth's life for about the next 15 years, but beginning in 1650 events unfolded that would change Elizabeth's life forever
and make her a figure in American history.
That year, Mottram brought a group of 20 men, white indentured servants from England, to Coan Hall, his estate in Northumberland County. For every
sponsored servant, a Virginian would receive 50 acres of land. Each indenture would serve for six years.
Among those indentures was 16-year-old William Grinstead, a young lawyer. Although Grinstead's parents aren't known, it's likely that he was a younger
son of an attorney who learned his father's trade. Under English common law, only the eldest son could inherit the father's property, and many younger
sons sought their fortunes across the Atlantic.
Mottram soon recognized Grinstead's value and had him represent him in legal matters. And it was at Coan Hall that Grinstead met Elizabeth Key. They fell in love and had two sons, John and William, but indentures could not be married. And Elizabeth's future was uncertain without freedom.
When Mottram died in 1655, Grinstead went to work. He sued the estate for Elizabeth's freedom. She had been a servant for 19 years--15 for Mottram.
The court granted her freedom, but the decision was appealed to a higher court, which overturned the decision and ruled that Elizabeth was a slave.
Grinstead took the case to the Virginia General Assembly, which appointed a committee to investigate and decided to send the case back to the courts for
Elizabeth finally won her freedom on three counts. By English common law, the status of the father determined the status of the child. As Elizabeth's
father was free, she was also set free.
In addition to Elizabeth's father's status as a free man, she was a baptized Christian. A Christian could not be held in slavery. Beside that, her
indenture was for nine years and she had served twice that long.
She not only gained her freedom, but the court ordered Mottram's estate to compensate her with corn and clothes for her lost years.
When William won the court battle for Elizabeth's freedom, they were not free to marry, as he was still a servant himself. They had to wait until he
completed his indenture in 1656.
In a bitter turn of history for many, the slave paternity law was changed in 1662. The rewritten law said the mother's status--slave or free--determined
the status of a child. Starting in 1667, being a Christian did not save black Americans from slavery.
Elizabeth slipped under the wire. And she had a very good lawyer.
I am proud that the subjects of this beautiful love story are my seventh great-grandparents. My great-great-grandmother was Naomi Grinstead,
Elizabeth and William's great-great-great-granddaughter.
Some don't think I should tell this story. They bring up the "one drop of blood" rule--that one drop of black blood makes you black.
As the poet Langston Hughes said, "Negro blood is sure powerful--because just one drop of black blood makes a colored man. One drop--you are a
If that's the case, my family has "passed" for so long they didn't even know they were black! And I bet we aren't so unusual, either.
Martha Hardcastle, 44, is a free-lance writer for the Dayton Daily News and an avid genealogist.