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Colbert (Hemings) Family
Betty Brown, the second daughter of Elizabeth Hemings, had eight children, six of whom used the surname Colbert; their father has not been identified. Her son Burwell Colbert was Jefferson’s valued manservant in his retirement years, as well as Monticello butler; he was also a painter and glazier. The descendants of his daughter Nancy Colbert Scott preserve an oral history of their ancestors that presents a striking portrait of the evils of slavery.
Betty Brown’s daughter Melinda Colbert married John Freeman, Jefferson’s dining-room servant at the White House; they raised a family in freedom in Washington, DC, and were active in antislavery activities there. Two of their grandsons distinguished themselves in the Union army in the Civil War. Melinda’s brother Robert Colbert was sold by Jefferson in 1820 and subsequently ran away; he was described in an advertisement as being “shrewd and intelligent” and having “somewhat” the appearance of an Indian. His fate is not known.
Betty Brown’s son Brown Colbert was a nailmaker at Monticello. To prevent separation from his wife, he asked Jefferson to sell him in 1805. With his wife and family, he lived in slavery in Lexington, Virginia, but was able to remain in contact with his mother and siblings at Monticello and in Washington. Surviving records indicate that this family made extraordinary efforts to maintain family bonds despite separation and to support their family members, both free and enslaved. While Brown Colbert’s bid for freedom in 1833 ended in tragedy on the west coast of Africa, his children who remained in Virginia laid the groundwork for the success of their descendants, who were educators, civic leaders, and soldiers in the Civil War.