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Reading Free Blacks Out of History By: Anita L. Wills
History News Network | Monday, February 28, 2005


"We reside among you and yet are strangers; natives and not citizens; surrounded by the freest people and most Republican Institutions in the world and yet enjoying none of the immunities of freedom though we are not slaves we are not yet free." -- Memorial of the Free People of Color, African Repository, December 1826, Baltimore MD
African American History month is a month in which Americans celebrate the history of people of African descent. It is a sharing of a culture long ignored by the dominant society. Yet much of the history begins and ends with the Civil War. Little is written about Free Blacks, or Free Persons of Color, a group who made significant contributions to American History.

A country's unbiased history should include all of the players, not just those with whom society is comfortable. Black historians ignore this group claiming they made no significant contributions. While other historians treat them as if they were either white or black. The race issue continues to overshadow any achievement this group made. The racial designations in Colonial Virginia and Pennsylvania were many, Mulatto, Negro, Colored, Free Black, Free Person of Color. They were designations assigned by white male dominated courts to so-called minority populations.

In Colonial Virginia, there was a large group of "FPC," or Free Persons of Color. This group was a mixture of free blacks, Negroes, natives, and mulattoes. They were legislated into existence by the laws of Colonial Virginia. One family which fell under this designation were the Bowdens. The family was headed by Mary Bowden, who would be the first of three generations of Bowdens to serve forced indentures to George Washington's family.

Mary ("Mol") Bowden was born about 1730, in Westmoreland County, Virginia. She was born free, and lived for the first seven years of her life as a free person. At the age of seven, Augustine Washington Senior (George Washington's father) took her to the Westmoreland County Courthouse and received a thirty-year indenture. (Westmoreland County Court records show a "Mol" Bowden, who in 1737, was identified as mulatto, and seven years of age.).

Under the laws of Colonial Virginia, a child born to a white woman, and any man who was not white, was to serve an indenture of 30 years (if female), or 20 years (if Male). In 1737, the courts assigned Mary Bowdens's indenture to Augustine Washington Sr. She was to serve her indenture at Popes Creek Plantation, the birthplace of George Washington. Augustine Sr. was then married to Mary Ball, and their oldest child George was five years of age.

Although George Washington was born at Popes Creek, the family moved when George was about eight-years-old (1735). When his father died about 1743, George spent time at Popes Creek, and at the property now known as Mount Vernon. His older brothers Augustine and Lawrence became the dominant male figures in his life. His father left Augustine Washington Jr. in charge of Popes Creek, a medium-sized plantation with about seventy-five slaves, European indentured servants, and small number of Mulatto indentured servants. The European indentured servants were in voluntary servitude, some to pay off debts and others hoping to eventually own land and slaves. Some were working off prison terms in the New Colony.

Although the law governing the treatment of mulattoes was passed to punish white women, the law was applied to the children. A white mother could get fined, jailed, and even run out of the county, but she did not lose her freedom. In many cases the law was applied outside its own scope. For instance, Mary Bowden is believed to have been the child of a native woman and a white man. The mother was free, and the laws (at that time), gave the child the status of their mother.

However, the mother was nowhere to be found, having been run out of the county. There was no one there to dispute the testimony of Augustine Washington Senior. No matter since the testimony of the mother would not have held up against a white man.

While at Popes Creek, Mary ran away several times, and each time was caught and returned. She escaped in 1754, and was found in Fairfax County, Virginia in 1758. Augustine Washington Jr. took her to court, where she had more time added on, and was fined. In 1750, she had a daughter, named Patty, who was immediately bound out to Augustine Washington Jr.

Patty Bowden was raised as a model servant at Popes Creek, so much so that she became a personal servant to Elizabeth Washington. When Elizabeth married in 1770, Patty's service was passed to her as a wedding gift. She left Popes Creek, and moved to Fredericksburg with Elizabeth and her new husband, Alexander Spotswood. Patty was taught how to run a plantation and how to manage the slaves and servants under her.

While Patty was serving her indenture, she had a child named Delphia, and that child was indentured to the Spotswoods for thirty years. When Patty's indenture was completed in 1780, Alexander Spotswood gave her the indenture to her child Delphia. According to Spotswood, he gave the child to her as a reward for her faithful service. This must have been a reference to Patty's service to his wife, Elizabeth.

By 1780, Mary Bowden was living in Fredericksburg with eight other mulattoes. Besides Patty, she had a son named William Bowden, and possibly other children. In the 1810 census, Mary Bowden was still living on Barton Street in Fredericksburg. There was no mention of her in the 1820 census, which implies she was deceased by then. Whenever the free black community showed significant increases, laws were passed requiring them to leave the state, and/or county. If they remained in the area, they could be sentenced to a long indenture, or enslaved. After all, being a free black went against every belief that the church and state of Virginia instituted.

The Bowdens were typical of Free Persons of Color, who were racially stereotyped by the laws of Colonial Virginia. They were made to pay for a situation for which they were not responsible. Yet their legacy continues to live on through their descendants,and through documents left by the Washington family. They are now coming out of the shadows and becoming a part of the history of America.

It is a history that few historians want to research and document. However, the material is there in the courthouses, census records, and history books. It is not an insignificant bit of history. As long as it is ignored, American history will be just a tale told from a biased point of view.


Ms. Wills is a writer, researcher, and genealogist, and author of the book, Notes and Documents of Free Persons of Color: Colonial Virginia, 1650-1850 (March 2003).


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