On September 5, 1791, Robert Carter III presented a remarkable document to the District Court in Northumberland County, Virginia. In a “Deed of Gift,” Carter set out a plan for the gradual manumission of 452 enslaved people he owned on plantations in the Tidewater and Shenandoah. Carter declared that he had “for some Time past been convinced that to retain them in Slavery is contrary to the true Principles of Religion and Justice, and that therefor it was my Duty to manumit them.”
The plan freed slaves gradually according to age. Though it was designed to withstand resistance from his heirs and the community, Carter’s children and his neighbors fought his plan fiercely in public and the courts. Carter’s document, however, withstood these challenges.
As Carter recorded the first emancipation certificates, his enslaved people seized newfound opportunities for freedom. Former slaves now negotiated with their former master to farm Carter’s lands on their own and unite with family members, many of whom still toiled in slavery. Despite tightening laws on free blacks, most of the freed men and women stayed in the counties where they had been enslaved.
The work of emancipation continued as late as 1852, when Carter’s daughter Julia certified the freedom of Elias Reed. Today thousands of people in Virginia and other states trace their ancestry to the more than 500 individuals ultimately emancipated by Carter’s deed and the new world they forged in freedom.