Robert Pleasants (1722-1801) was a Virginia plantation owner, tobacco merchant, and Quaker abolitionist. He lived at Curles Neck in Henrico County.
Along with other Virginia Quakers, Pleasants successfully petitioned the state legislature to allow the manumission of slaves. When the law passed in 1782, he freed his own slaves and filed a lawsuit for emancipation of more than 400 slaves freed by the terms of his father's will (in 1771, before the law had passed). Pleasants opposed the deportation of freed bondsmen and supported the establishment of free schools for African-American children.1
In June 1796, Robert Pleasants wrote to Thomas Jefferson on the subject of public education for enslaved children.2 Jefferson responded by suggesting that his "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge," which had failed to pass in the Virginia legislature, could be revised and resubmitted to include African-American children.3 Pleasants was amenable to this idea, but felt that the law would never pass in the face of general prejudice against educating African-Americans.4
In his will, Robert Pleasants provided for a school for African-American children on the property inhabited by his own former slaves. Pleasants "had tenanted out many of these families upon a Tract of Land near him which he left in his Will for their use in manner following. vizt. a School was opened in which the Children of the Tenants were to be instructed and the rents which the parents were bound to pay was to go to the support of it."5 The community's "Gravelly Hill School" is considered to be the first school for free blacks in Virginia.6
Primary Source References
1796 June 1. (Pleasants to Jefferson). "Concieving the Instruction of black Children to be a duty we owe to that much degraded part of our fellow Creatures, and probably would tend to the spiritual and temporal advantage of that unhappy race, as well as to the Community at large, in fitting them for freedom, which at this enlightened day is generally acknowledged to be their right, I have much desired to see some sutable steps taken to promote such work; And believing thee to be a real friend to the cause of liberty, and endowed with ability and influence in regulating and promoting sutable plans for such a purpose ...."7
1796 August 27. (Jefferson to Pleasants). "... the establishment of the plan of emancipation if it should precede I am not prepared to decide. ... I venture therefore to suggest what alone can, in my opinion, accomplish the general object. Among the laws proposed in what was called the Revised code printed in 1784. was a bill entitled 'for the more general diffusion of knowledge.' ... Very small alterations would make it embrace the object of your paper, it's effect would be general, and the means for carrying it on would be certain and permanent. Permit me therefore to suggest to you the substitution of that as a more general and certain means of providing for the instruction of the slaves, and more desireable as they would in the course of it be mixed with those of free condition. Whether, for their happiness, it should extend beyond those destined to be free, is questionable. Ignorance and despotism seem made for each other."8
1797 February 8. (Pleasants to Jefferson). "... I can’t help fearing that the prevailing prejudices against that unfortunate race of people, will be an obstruction to an equal participation of the proposed benifit." 9