Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 114 / Number 4
The Vass Slaves: County Courts, State Laws, and Slavery in Virginia, 1831–1861
- Loren Schweninger, pp. 464–97
In the midst of growing animosity and sectional conflict between the North and South during the decades before the Civil War, a small group of slaves, freed under the will of Philip E. Vass of Halifax County, struggled to acquire and maintain their freedom. They faced an especially hostile environment following the Nat Turner Revolt but managed to secure white allies and present petitions to the county court and state legislatures in Virginia and North Carolina. Despite a law requiring freed slaves to leave the state within a year, they remained in Virginia for nearly three decades. The story of Jacob, Mary, Patsey, Meriweather, Sam, and Matilda is both moving and instructive. Their determination to remain in the South was all consuming, and their efforts to plead their case before Judge William Leigh of the Halifax County Superior Court of Law and Chancery reveal a great deal about the fairness and equity of the local court system. At one point, they sued the executor of Vass's will, Isaac Medley, one of the richest slaveholders in Southside Virginia, forcing him to appear in court and answer charges. It was ironic that, as the once proud and wealthy white Vass family experienced decline and near poverty, the Vass slaves achieved their goal of remaining in the land of their birth with their loved ones.