Amy Farrow, a free Black woman in 18th century Charlottesville, bought 224 acres of land that she established as a community for the free population of color in the city and surrounding county, including members of Monticello’s Hemings family. Learn more with Monticello Guides Olivia Brown and Alice Wagner.

Olivia Brown: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation - from the past and from the present. Thank you for joining us, we hope you'll learn something new. 

I'm Olivia Brown. Today, I'm joined by Monticello Guide, Alice Wagner. 

Alice Wagner: Today on Mountaintop History, we're going to explore the story of Amy Farrow, a free Black landholding woman who lived in Charlottesville in the 18th century. 

In 1788, in rural Albemarle County, Virginia, a man sold 224 acres of land. It was hilly and not exactly the choicest bit of farmland - that he would save for himself - but it was serviceable enough, with access to water and timber. An unremarkable purchase, perhaps, except that the purchaser was both Black and a woman. Her name? Amy Farrow. 

Farrow was illiterate and so on the deed of sale she simply left her mark - an X in place of her name. This seemingly simple purchase would lay the foundations for a thriving African American community that would later become known as Free State. Located north of the city of Charlottesville, near modern U.S. Route 29 and Rio Road, Free State was a rural community of free black farmers and their families. It was wedged between larger plantations worked by enslaved laborers, and owned by wealthy white men, including Samuel Carr, a nephew of Thomas Jefferson. 

Olivia Brown: But who was Amy Farrow herself? Not much is known about her life, not even her exact birthdate or what her maiden name might have been. She was born sometime in the 1730s in nearby Louisa County, Virginia, to a Black father and a white mother. Under the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705, any white female servant who bore a child by a Black man had to pay a fine and her child would be taken from her to be sold into indentured servitude until they turned 31. Amy Farrow was indentured to at least two different families, one of which was the Michie family, who would later establish Michie Tavern, a historic tavern still visited by many guests on their way to Monticello. 

At some point during her indenture, she had at least one daughter with a man with the last name of Bowles. She would go on to have at least four other children with him, though most of them were born after she gained her freedom in her early thirties. Their only son was Zachariah, who would later go on to marry an enslaved woman at Monticello: Critta Hemings, sister to Sally Hemings. 

Alice Wagner: Bowles likely died sometime in the 1760s, since by 1767, Amy was married to a man named Thomas Farrow, with whom she had one more son. Thomas Farrow died in 1778, leaving his property to Amy and her children. A decade later, as a widowed, single mother to at least six children, she made that first significant step into land ownership. In late-18th and early-19th century Virginia land was the key to wealth, self-sufficiency, and social standing. In Albemarle, most of this land was owned by a small, largely white section of the population. In 1820, 60% of the entire population of the county were enslaved African Americans. Only about 2% of the remaining population were free and Black. 

However, Amy Farrow was part of a small but growing class of free Black landholders in Albemarle County. By 1830, about 22% of the free Black population owned land. And Farrow, wasn't the only one with family connections to Monticello: Nancy West, the mother-in-law of Eston Hemings, son of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, was the wealthiest person of color in Charlottesville in the early 19th century. Sally Hemings' sister, Mary Hemings Bell, lived in a common law marriage with merchant Thomas Bell, who left her and their children his property. They later sold part of it so that they could free other members of their family who were still enslaved. 

Olivia Brown: Intriguingly, there was another free woman of color named Elizabeth Farrow Randolph who owned real estate in town. We've not yet been able to find any connection between Elizabeth Farrow Randolph and Amy's husband, Thomas Farrow, but given the small population of Albemarle County at the time, it would be shocking if they weren't related in some way. What we do know of Elizabeth Farrow Randolph is that she, like Amy Farrow, was the daughter of a white woman and a Black man, and that she too found herself widowed, with a large family to take care of. She would later get remarried to Israel Gillette Jefferson, an enslaved man who had been born at Monticello, and was later enslaved by the Gilmer family of Albemarle. It's Elizabeth Farrow Randolph who would provide the money for Israel Gillette Jefferson to buy his own freedom in 1844. 

Land ownership enabled women like Elizabeth Gillette Jefferson, Mary Hemings Bell, Nancy West, and Amy Farrow to free their loved ones, keep their families together, and to establish generational wealth. When Amy Farrow died in 1797, she left her 224-acre farm to her sons, Thomas Farrow, Jr. and Zachariah Bowles Zachariah Bowles would follow in his mother's footsteps, passing the land down to his sister's sons. After the Civil War, Free State became an important community hub for African Americans in Albemarle County. Many of the residents were on the forefront of the regional shift away from traditional grain crops to fruit orchards and vineyards. Others worked as day laborers, [00:07:00] laundresses, and dressmakers. A school, Free State Colored School, was established to educate Black children in the area. 

Alice Wagner: Free State, however, began to change in the early-20th century with the Great Migration, a national population shift as Black southerners began to move to the North and Midwest. A lot of this migration was prompted by laws passed by many states, including Virginia, that enforced segregated neighborhoods. Even when these laws were declared unconstitutional in 1912, places like Charlottesville found ways to enforce segregation and limit the ability of Black people to own property through private deeds, neighborhood racial covenants, and the practice of redlining. Free State itself saw a 50% decline in the Black population between 1900 and 1910. 50% of that remaining population would be gone by 1930, though several of Amy Farrow's descendants remained in the area well into the mid-20th century. 

Now, the modern neighborhood of Belvedere stands on much of Amy Farrow's original 224-acre purchase. Across from the community pool, joggers and dog walkers pass a Virginia Historical Highway Marker remembering Free State. The streets bear Amy Farrow's name and the names of her descendants and neighbors. There are few other physical reminders of their presence, but if you were to take a walk to Bowles Lane, you would find a small, quiet cemetery surrounded by a protective cover of tall bushes. It's likely this is Amy Farrow's final resting place, though only one small tombstone yet stands, belonging to one of her descendants. The simple epitaph reads: "Mary Bowles, Died. Dec. 6. 1882." 

Olivia Brown: Were it not for this single surviving tombstone, the efforts of some of Amy Farrow's descendants, and of dedicated archeologists, the history of Free State would have been paved over. How many other hidden histories are out there, right in our own neighborhoods and backyards? How many other Amy Farrows? How many other everyday people who managed to carve out a life for themselves and their families despite the larger systems of racism, classism, and sexism that surrounded them? If you do a little digging, you might be surprised at what you find.

 This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, and the Virginia Audio Collective. To learn more about Monticello, or to plan your next trip, visit us online at

Critta Hemings Bowles

Critta Hemings Bowles (1769-1850) was the daughter of Elizabeth Hemings and John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson's father-in-law. She lived at Monticello from about 1775 until 1827.

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