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If only the dead could talk! This paradoxical statement proved sadly appropriate in the early 19th century. Enslaved people faced undue hardship from those who refused to carry out the desires of a deceased enslaver. Such was the case of an enslaved woman in Amherst County who had to prove her right to freedom.

Nancy Holloway filed a lawsuit in dispute of a failure to execute the will of her deceased enslaver, Henry Holloway. In the will, Holloway states that he “would give [Nancy and her daughter, Sophia] their freedom, if the laws of the State of Virginia would permit,” and expresses his desire that they be freed, should the laws allow it after his death. Three executors were named in the will, but only two were alive at the time of Nancy’s filing. The two surviving executors were David S. Garland and Reuben Norvell.

While acknowledging that freeing Nancy and Sophia was not legal in Virginia, Holloway stipulated that, until their freedom could be realized, they should be allowed “to work for themselves” and that “they are not…to be made to work for anyone save themselves.” Moreover, if there was no other recourse to obtain their freedom in Virginia, Nancy and Sophia were to be sent to another state where they could secure it, and if so “that my [Executors] pay [Nancy] one hundred dollars.”

Thomas Holloway, the deceased executor, had ample opportunity to execute the will before his demise. He repeatedly gave false hope to Nancy and Sophia by promising to produce the papers and pay the $100. These promises had not been fulfilled at the time of Thomas Holloway’s death, and remained unfulfilled to the date of the lawsuit. Nancy and Sophia did not know what to do. Court records assert that they “dragged out a miserable existence, having neither the protection of slaves nor enjoying the rights of freedom…” The promised $100 was in jeopardy because Thomas Holloway reportedly was bankrupt after paying all outstanding debts of the estate. He also transferred all property to George Holloway, who in turn joined with his brother-in-law, Nicholas Kinney.

The George Holloway and Nicholas Kinney pact involved approximately $10,000, as well as property connected to land owned by several others, including Dr. Henry J. Rose and William McDaniel. Nothing was done to honor Henry Holloway’s wishes that Nancy and Sophia’s path to freedom be facilitated and that they receive compensation. Nicholas Kinney also died, leaving only his children as a potential resource.

Nancy’s only remedy was to summon the administrator of Thomas Holloway’s estate (Henry Davies); the surviving executors (David Garland and Reuben Norvell); and the children of Nicholas Kinney. The lawsuit aimed to secure the overdue freedom granted in the will of Henry Holloway and the promised $100, with interest. A sale of the land and property involved in the Kinney deal was named as a funding source.

In the end, because Henry Holloway was unable (by his account) to carry out these deeds in life, Nancy and Sophia were at the mercy of strangers left to execute the desires of their departed enslaver. While the record does not reveal the outcome, I am certain that Nancy and Sophia wished that the dead could talk!

Nancy Holloway~, etc. vs. Admr. of Thomas S. Holloway, etc., 1837-008, is part of the Amherst County Chancery Causes, 1779-1869 now available online through the Chancery Records Index on Virginia Memory. Additional causes of interest can be found in the finding aid for the Amherst County chancery causes. The processing and scanning of the Amherst County chancery causes were made possible through the innovative Circuit Court Records Preservation Program (CCRP), a cooperative program between the Library of Virginia and the Virginia Court Clerks Association (VCCA), which seeks to preserve the historic records found in Virginia’s circuit courts.

Sherri Bagley

Local Records Archivist

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