Discovering Black History – 18th Century Virginia

I’m writing an historical fiction set in multiple locations, including in Williamsburg, Virginia during 1730-1740. My knowledge of Black history in this time period was limited at best, so I needed to do some digging.

Basic History

Let’s start with some general information. The first enslaved people “Some 20 and odd” were brought on the White Lion to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. By the end of the Civil War that number grew to 10 million people across the United States. There’s lots of information you can find on the 1619 Project website to show how slavery impacted America.

The triangular trade fueled the 18th century economy. Europeans traded manufactured goods for captured Africans who were then sold to the Americas as slaves. Many Africans ended up in Brazil, the West Indies and British colonies. The trip to North America was called middle passage and it was beyond brutal.


Places of Origin

When I was a child I watched the TV series Roots, based on the book by Alex Haley. In the book Kunta Kinte was born in 1750 in the Mandinka village of Jufureh, in the Gambia and was enslaved in 1767.

When I visited Shirley Plantation the historian told me that most of the enslaved people in Virginia were from Igbo village in the Bight of Biafra, although there was a significant Gambian population too. In the 1600s most of the enslaved came from Angola.  On this particular plantation, the Carters preferred “Gambies” because they were taller and believed “Bites” were more difficult because they more likely to revolt, slow down, run or break tools. Based on this information I made my character, Chibuzo, come from Igbo village.

It’s bizarre to think of people owning people. Black people were thought of as property, so they could be bought, sold, rented out, mortgaged and killed. The Virginia Slave Code of 1705 defined slaves as real estate, allowed masters to kill slaves without penalty, did not all slaves or people of color to assault white people, denied slaves the right to own weapons or move without written permission.

The laws essentially encouraged white masters to rape Black enslaved women because children followed the legal status of the mother. Thus by raping women enslaved to him he increased his profits by having more slave labor and faced no legal consequences.

Life As An Enslaved Person

A lot of my understanding of slavery was based on memoirs written by formerly enslaved people.

Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl – Harriot Jacobs, 12 Years A Slave – Solomon Northup, the basis for the Academy Award winning movie and Three African-American Classics – Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington, The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass. These primary sources detailed the horrors of slavery from the people who were subjected to it.

These memoirs were written over a century after the time period my novel is set in, so I had to cross reference laws and customs specific to Virginia in the 1730s. I went to Colonial Williamsburg  to speak with several historians for help.

Food allotted to enslaved people was meager and they were expected to supplement their own diets with vegetables kept in their gardens. Some people were allowed to own chickens as well and if masters allowed it they could sell extra vegetables and eggs back to the big house or locals to get supplemental income.

Everyone worked dawn to dusk, often later during harvest season, and those who worked in the fields got Sunday afternoons off. This is when they would tend gardens or, if allowed by their master, rent themselves out to other. Often their masters would collect a portion of their earnings as the contingency to let them work for others.  Those who worked in the big house never got time off. They were always on call to fulfill the master and mistress’ needs.

I thought that most enslaved people lived in the deep South. I was surprised to learn that in 1750, 61% of all British North American slaves (almost 145,000) lived in Virginia and Maryland working on tobacco plantations. The historians I spoke with estimated that Williamsburg’s population had about 42% Black people.


I was also surprised to learn reading was legal for Black people in the 1730s and, depending on the job, encouraged. Cooks in particular were educated because they had to read long recipes in cookbooks. Large households in Williamsburg (the capital) would host men in town for meetings of The House of Burgesses and the masters of the house would want to have the most fashionable dishes presented at their table. Benjamin Franklin suggested that Williamsburg establish a school for free and enslaved Black children. The Bray School (now located on the campus of William & Mary University) operated in the years between 1760-1774. As in all things related to slavery, education was through the filter of the master’s needs. The mission of the school was “to impart Christian education to Black children and for students to accept enslavement as divinely ordained.” 

Williamsburg Bray School

Since slavery was a life sentence and the ability to purchase your freedom was rare and difficult, the default to motivate enslaved people was violence. I read newspaper ads for runaway slaves and so many list scars on their faces, arms, over their eyes. It was also jarring to read ads where the master was a minister, not something I expected. The ads, while in the perspective of the owner, do offer insight into what enslaved people wore, their age, what they felt important enough to take when they escaped, and the value the owner placed on them.  The Yale Slavery and Abolition Portal has a ton of information from biographies, to deeds and insurance policies to revolts and rebellions. This ad blew me away – it was from Thomas Jefferson…

Runaway slave ad from Thomas Jefferson

I asked several historians where someone trying to escape slavery might go. In 1730-1740 slavery was everywhere, even in northern colonies. Florida was owned by Spain at the time and they did not have slavery, but travelling there would be incredibly difficult. There was a free Black community in Charles City (a Quaker community), but if you were running you might want to get farther away where fewer people knew you. Bigger cities, like Philadelphia were easier to hide in. People would try to stow away on a ship leaving City Point or Point of Norfolk to get there.

There are so many forgotten and untold stories. Historians focus on dates, politics and economics. Historical fiction writers, like me, research the facts and use our imagination to fill in the gaps so today’s readers can connect, empathize and learn from people from the past.

Next month I’ll focus on the role women played in the 18th century. Stay tuned!



Copyright (c) Lisa Traugott 2022. All rights reserved.

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