Join the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello for a virtual Fellow's Forum with Alyssa Penick, Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.
In 1832, the Overseers of the Poor of Norfolk County asked the Virginia General Assembly to emancipate Billy Pugh, explaining that he had “deported himself in the most respectful manner & having paid to the Poor by his heirs &c several thousand dollars.” This petition made its math explicit: the price of Billy Pugh’s freedom was the continued bondage of his children. Pugh was born in 1800 as the property of Elizabeth River Parish in Norfolk. In 1802, Virginia’s legislature authorized the confiscation of church property as part of religious disestablishment. Norfolk County seized the community of enslaved people belonging to Elizabeth River Parish, including Pugh.
The enslavement of Billy Pugh, his ancestors, and his descendants provides a new window into the story of church and state. This talk will explore the intersection of institutional slaveholding and disestablishment by considering the lives of Billy Pugh and other enslaved individuals seized by the state. Traditionally, scholars have focused on disestablishment as an ideological struggle for individual rights. But disestablishment left Black men and women in bondage as white communities fought over their bodies and labor. A desire to win control of church property, particularly enslaved people, animated many of the most bitter fights over church and state.
About the Speaker
Alyssa Penick completed her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in 2020. Her dissertation explored the legal relationship between church and state in Maryland and Virginia between 1720-1820. She worked as a lecturer in History at the University of Michigan in 2020.