By Lori Hinterleiter Kimball
An important, but little known, story in our country’s history is the emancipation by Robert Carter III of more than 500 enslaved people. September marks the 225th anniversary of this extraordinary act, and Oatlands will commemorate it with a month-long display in the Visitor Center and a special program on Sept. 24.
Robert “Councilor” Carter III was born in 1728. The grandson of Robert “King” Carter, a prominent and wealthy member of the Tidewater gentry, Councilor inherited land and slaves from both his father and famous grandfather. Councilor was so nicknamed because he had served on the Governor’s Council in Williamsburg prior to the Revolutionary War.
Councilor inherited enormous tracts of land in what are now Loudoun, Prince William and Fairfax Counties and along the Shenandoah River further west. Some of the parcels were tracts rented to tenant farmers. Others were plantations that he established, managed by an overseer and worked by slaves.
Councilor’s feelings about slavery evolved with the passing years. By the last quarter of the 1700s, he had begun to worship with anti-slavery Baptists whose congregations included many of his own enslaved people and free blacks in the Tidewater community. He later left the Baptist Church and turned to the Swedenborg faith. This change in his attitude toward slavery brought with it a desire that his youngest sons, John Tasker and George, not be raised in that environment. He sent them to Rhode Island as young boys to be schooled in the North.
By 1782, nearly 80 years before Lincoln’s famous Proclamation signing, a change in Virginia law may have hastened Councilor’s views on what was possible regarding emancipation. This law enabled private property owners such as Carter to free their slaves if certain requirements were met. The freed peoples had to be within a certain age range, able to support themselves, and able to pay their own taxes.
In 1791, Councilor Carter codified his beliefs into an amazing legal document called the Deed of Gift that provided gradual emancipation to more than 450 enslaved peoples identified at that time. The exact number is imprecise as the plan took into account future births that occurred over the many years the plan was carried out. It most likely freed 510 people, and possibly more.
Councilor took an inventory of the enslaved on each of his plantations. The number at Leo Plantation on the Loudoun County/Fairfax County border was 42. The surnames are ones we are familiar with today, including Allen, Burke, Harris, Newman, Reid, and Robinson.
Councilor’s plan was a complicated one that granted freedom based on age and a specific number of people each year. There was a schedule to be followed, first by Carter, and then his agents.
While most, if not all, of Councilor’s slaves were eventually granted their freedom, some had to wait longer than expected. Lapsed reporting by his agents was one reason. Lawsuits by Carter family members who did not share his belief in emancipation of what they considered to be their property and inheritance was another.
Unfortunately, one family member who firmly believed in the institution of slavery was Councilor’s son, George. Despite his father’s anti-slavery beliefs and the formative years he spent in the North, George became a slave owner. In 1798, at age 21, George took possession of his future inheritance: some 3,400 acres in Loudoun, 1,200 acres in Fairfax, and some parcels in Prince William. He established his farm on the north side of Goose Creek and called it Oatlands. By 1800, there were 17 people enslaved at Oatlands. Through additional purchases and births, the enslaved community at Oatlands grew to 133 men, women and children by 1860. The Carters at Oatlands were the largest slave owners in Loudoun County at the start of the Civil War.
In commemoration of the 225th anniversary of the Deed of Gift, Oatlands and the Mosby Heritage Area Association have partnered to present a program about Robert Carter III, featuring the Colonial Williamsburg interpreter who portrays Carter. “An Afternoon with Robert Carter III” will be held at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 24, at Oatlands. The $20/adult and $5/child (6-16) admission fee includes a walk-through tour of the mansion and access to the garden and grounds.
Learn more through the Nomini Hall Slave Legacy Project , an extensive effort to document information about Carter’s enslaved people and identify and connect descendants.
Lori Kimball is director of Programming and Education of Oatlands, Inc., a non-profit organization, National Trust site, National Historic Landmark, and member of the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom. Oatllands is located at 20850 Oatlands Plantation Lane, off Rt. 15 south of Leesburg. Call 703-777-3174 ext. 103, or visit online at oatlands.org for information. In Our Backyard is compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. To learn about the organization, or to participate in the Rural Roads Initiative, go to loudouncoalition.org.