In a world based on slavery, freedom and family were often in conflict. Leaving Monticello meant leaving loved ones. The few instances of people running away in quest of permanent freedom were young unmarried men, and they rarely succeeded. In their daily struggle against slavery’s indignities, most of Monticello’s African Americans resisted slavery in other ways. Their day-to-day resistance, marked by ingenuity and cooperation, helped to moderate harsh working conditions and preserve customary rights.
Struggles against slavery did not end for families who found freedom before 1865. Members of the Fossett family in both Ohio and Virginia forged free papers and harbored fugitive slaves in their houses. Thomas and Jemima Woodson’s family in Ohio paid a heavy price for participation in the Underground Railroad. Two of their sons were beaten to death for assisting runaway slaves and refusing to reveal their hiding places.
Schools and churches were important sites of resistance to the institution of slavery. Within these independent institutions on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, African Americans worked to strengthen education and organized efforts to purchase or bring people out of slavery. Joseph Fossett’s son Jesse Fossett and others left one Cincinnati church and founded another because the old church’s members “fellowshipped” with slaveholders. Betty Brown’s Freeman grandchildren in Washington, DC, were organizers and speakers at events to raise money to free slaves. At one fundraiser Edwin Freeman spoke “on slavery and freedom.”
The descendants who faced artillery fire on the battlefield in the Civil War would have agreed with John Freeman Shorter, who wrote to President Lincoln in 1864: “We came to fight for liberty, justice & equality. These are gifts we prize more highly than gold.”
“The last I heard of them”
Israel Jefferson speaks of the fate of his enslaved children and describes how he gained his freedom.
“During the interval of Mr. Jefferson’s death and the sale to Mr. Gilmer, I married Mary Ann Colter, a slave, by whom I had four children—Taliola, (a daughter) Banebo, (a son) Susan and John. As they were born slaves they took the usual course of most others in the same condition in life. I do not know where they now are, if living; but the last I heard of them they were in Florida and Virginia. My wife died, and while a servant of Mr. Gilmer, I married my present wife, widow Elizabeth Randolph, who was then mother to ten children. Her maiden name was Elizabeth Farrow. Her mother was a white woman named Martha Thacker. Consequently, Elizabeth, (my present wife) was free-born. She supposes that she was born about 1793 or ‘94. Of her ten children, only two are living—Julia, her first born, and wife of Charles Barnett, who lives on an adjoining farm, and Elizabeth, wife of Henry Lewis, who reside within one mile of us.
My wife and I have lived together about thirty-five years. We came to Cincinnati, Ohio, where we were again married in conformity to the laws of this State. At the time we were first married I was in bondage; my wife was free. When my first wife died I made up my mind I would never live with another slave woman. When Governor Gilmer was elected a representative in Congress, he desired to have me go on to Washington with him. But I demurred. I did not refuse, of course, but I laid before him my objections with such earnestness that he looked me in the face with his piercing eye, as if balancing in his mind whether to be soft or severed, and said,
‘Israel, you have served me well; you are a faithful servant; now what will you give me for your freedom?’
‘I reckon I give you what you paid years ago—$500,’ I replied.
‘How much will you give to bind the bargain?’ he asked.
‘Three hundred dollars,’ was my ready answer.
‘When will you pay the remainder?’
‘In one and two years.’
And on these terms the bargain concluded and I was, for the first time, my own man, and almost free, but not quite, for it was against the laws of Virginia for a freed slave to reside in the State beyond a year and a day. Nor were the colored people not in slavery free; they were nominally so. When I came to Ohio I considered myself wholly free, and not till then.
And here let me say, that my good master, Governor Gilmer, was killed by the explosion of the gun Peacemaker, on board the Princeton, in 1842 or 1843, and had I gone to Washington with him it would have been my duty to keep very close to his person, and probably I would have been killed also, as others were.
I was bought in the name of my wife. We remained in Virginia several years on sufferance. At last we made up our minds to leave the confines of slavery and emigrate to a free State. We went to Charlottesville Court House, in Albermarle county, for my free papers. When there, the clerk, Mr. Garrett, asked me what surname I would take. I hesitated, and he suggested that it should be Jefferson, because I was born at Monticello and had been a good and faithful servant to Thomas Jefferson. Besides, he said, it would give me more dignity to be called after so eminent a man. So I consented to adopt the surname of Jefferson, and have been known by it ever since.” (Israel Jefferson, Pike County Republican, 25 Dec. 1873)