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50 Years a Slave, the Hidden History of Rachel Findlay

Thomas Nast's portrayal of the emancipation of Southern slaves with the end of the Civil War
Thomas Nast's portrayal of the emancipation of Southern slaves with the end of the Civil War

The Oscar-winning film 12 Years A Slave traces the struggles of Solomon Northup after he’s kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery. Similar stories played out all over Virginia, and many people fought their bondage through Freedom Suits. For Virginia Currents, Catherine Komp brings us the story of one woman who spent five decades illegally enslaved, but never gave up the fight to free herself and her descendants.

Learn More:
Find out more about Rachel Findlay's Freedom Suit and search for other cases at the Library of Virginia's Chancery Records Index. You can also discover new historical findings by following the Library's archivists at the Out of the Box blog.

There were three main ways enslaved people could file Freedom Suits: they were illegally transported into the Commonwealth; they were emancipated in a will or deed; or they could prove Native American descent on the maternal side. Many of these suits were filed before the Civil War, between 1807-1844.

Greg Crawford: We’re still finding them.

Greg Crawford is Local Records Program Manager at the Library of Virginia.

Crawford: There are many more that are in unprocessed collections that we’re finding on a regular basis, so there are thousands of them out there.


Docket of Rachel v John Draper

 One of those cases, Rachel Findlay vs. John Draper, Sr., was discovered in the 1980s in the basement of the Wythe County Courthouse.

Mary Kegley: I was working on bicentennial history for Wythe county and I went to basement of courthouse and started digging through lawsuits and I found her lawsuit.

That began lawyer and geneologist Mary Kegley’s quest to piece together the story of Rachel Findlay.

Mary Kegley: She got her freedom in Williamsburg, 1773.

A court ruled in favor of the Findlays after the family sued Thomas Clay of Powhatan County for freedom based on their Native American ancestry. But Rachel Findlay didn’t receive this news.>

Kegley: The Clay family led by Mitchell Clay decided they didn’t want her to know about her freedom, so he took her 200 or more miles to what’s now (the) Princeton area of West Virginia and a very isolated area. So she couldn’t possibly get a lawyer, she couldn’t get to the courthouse, it was miles and miles away.

Findlay, who was pregnant at the time, and her daughter Judy were then sold to John Draper of Wythe County and she spent the next four decades illegally enslaved. During that time she had more children, and grandchildren, all of whom the Drapers kept in bondage. But her hopes for freedom weren’t diminished.

Crawford: What we have here is a copy of a suit that was heard in Wythe County.

Greg Crawford opens a folder containing more than 40 pages of handwritten 19th Century court records.

Crawford: The case was heard there in Wythe County for about five or six years, and she was not having her case fully addressed. It kept being pushed and continued and continued to the point where she said in one of her statements, I’m old, I’m infirm, I have 40 children and grandchildren, if something is not decided now about my freedom and I die, they will all remain slaves, they would not know their liberties. So, she was able to successfully have the case moved from Wythe County to Powhatan County where it finally heard.

This was an important turn in Findlay’s legal case. Moving it to a superior court of law meant it would be heard by a jury rather than local magistrates, though one of all white men. It also made it easier to depose witnesses who knew the Findlays, many of whom were now elderly.

Crawford: All the witnesses who remembered her when she was growing up in Powhatan, lived there. The other fact is they’re in their sixties, seventies and eighties, and so if they die off before she can get testimony, it makes her case even more difficult. So that’s why she was pushing so hard to have the case moved from Wythe to Powhatan.


Rachel Findlay Verdict

 Finally, on May 13, 1820, when she was in her sixties, the jury issued their verdict: Rachel Findlay “is free and not a slave.” They awarded her damages of one penny and she soon registered as a free person of color. Nearly 200 years later, Findlay was honored as one of the 2014 Virginia Women in History, an annual event at the Library of Virginia. One of her descendants, Robert Fitzgerald, accepted the award saying, “Her life really reflects the human spirit’s need to be free and at all costs.”

Not much is known about the rest of Findlay’s life, says Mary Kegley, who wrote a novel based on the court records titled Free in Chains. A law passed in 1806 required free slaves to leave the Commonwealth within a year, so she may have moved to another state.

Kegley: So my question is, where did you go and if you went to new place they wouldn’t know her situation right away. However, some descendents went to ohio and so we’re not real sure on that but we still need to do some research. But the end of story isn’t over, I think it will come out where she is; we don’t where she’s buried, we don’t know when she died.


Genealogy chart, often used in Freedom Suits

 And there many other stories to tell, says Greg Crawford. When they found Rachel Findlay’s documents, they were tightly rolled up in a bundle - likely untouched for the last 200 years.

Crawford: We’re making it a priority to find more of these Freedom Suits, because they tell a story, they tell a narrative from the African-American point of view of their efforts or attempts to win freedom, using the law.

Crawford and the team of archivists at the Library of Virginia are working to process and digitize more Freedom Suits, with the goal of expanding what’s known about this period of history and unearthing more stories that remain untold. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.