Skip to main content

In July 1813, a Black man named Roger was charged in the Richmond City Hustings Court with stealing a “Sourtaurt great coat.” I was not immediately familiar with this term, but after some light Wikipedia searching I learned that Surtout or “Soutache” was used in the 19th century to refer to an overcoat. The court tried Roger’s case and acquitted him of the charges. I’ve learned that even if enslaved people were acquitted by the court and the court did not issue a sentence, some were punished by their enslavers privately.1 But Roger was not enslaved.

The indictment paper states that Roger was charged and committed to jail for taking, stealing, and carrying “out of the possession of Thomas Foster one Sourtaurt great coat”

The criminal trials, referred to as “Commonwealth Causes,” that we are processing for Virginia Untold often provide only the bare bones of the legal case. From the case documents alone, we don’t learn much about the individual who is being charged or much detail about the crime, unless there is a deposition included, which is rare. But this case caught my eye. Using a variety of different (and sometimes offensive) terms, the county court clerks who wrote these documents generally identified the defendant’s enslaved status. This is useful for processing archivists because it allows us to select documents that are about enslaved or free Black and multiracial individuals to digitize for Virginia Untold. In Roger’s case, the clerk had labeled him as such: “Roger a man of color who says he is suing for his freedom.”

Roger’s status held a tenuous in-between ground. The law may have said Roger was enslaved, but he was out to prove this wasn’t the case. He must have told the white clerk that he was suing for his freedom. He wanted others to know he was not enslaved. In doing so, Roger provided a clue for searching for more about his life.

From the pre-1865 material in the Richmond City Hustings Court, we have only identified about three folders of freedom suits. (Freedom suits can also be found in Chancery Records, another digital collection.) Freedom suits are lawsuits initiated by enslaved people seeking to gain their freedom. Enslaved men and women sued for emancipation based on many reasons including, like in the case of Roger, that they had been freed by the last will and testament of a former enslaver but the stipulations of the will were never carried out.

The indictment paper states that Roger was a man of color “who says he is suing for his freedom of this `{`Richmond`}` City.”

I wondered if I could find Roger’s case in that small, three-folder collection. Sure enough, I came across a freedom suit in which a man named Roger sued the man holding him illegally in bondage in March 1813. The timeframe of the suit aligned with Roger’s criminal charge. Could this be the same Roger?

In his petition to sue for freedom, Roger explained that he had previously been enslaved by a Mrs. Frances Timberlake of New Kent County. She wrote her will in 1795, declaring that Roger was to be a free man within the expiration of that year. But before her desires were carried out, a “distant connection” named Robert Hilliard showed up “and took possession of [Roger] without any authority, & sold him to a certain Thomas Ratcliffe as a slave.” Roger was enslaved to Ratcliffe until Ratcliffe died at which point his son, William Ratcliffe, took ownership of Roger and continued to hold him in bondage until the time of Roger’s freedom suit. A witness for Roger’s case confirmed that “he has always understood that the [said] Roger was improperly sold…as a slave.” Roger initiated his freedom suit in early March 1813. This means Roger had been living in bondage for nearly eighteen years past the terms of Timberlake’s will. Eighteen more years of stolen freedom.

The court allowed Roger’s suit to be heard by the Hustings Court. But as these cases tend to do, the trial dragged on for several years. Finally on June 20, 1818, the case was abated—essentially, it was eliminated. Why? The defendant, William Ratcliffe, died.

Wrapper of Roger’s Freedom Suit or “Petition to sue for freedom”

What did this mean for Roger? Well, legally Roger was still considered property. He would now be owned by William Ratcliffe’s heirs—that is, if Ratcliffe had a will. If Ratcliffe died without a will, Roger might be sold to cover Ratcliffe’s debts, becoming property of the government. If Roger wanted his legal freedom, he would have to initiate a completely new suit against his new enslaver. In other words, he would have to start all over again.

I wonder how Roger felt when he learned that Frances Timberlake was planning to liberate him. The will sheds some light on Timberlake’s desires for her enslaved people after her death. Roger, likely with the help of his lawyer, must have tracked down a copy of the will because it is included in his freedom suit. Timberlake wrote that “at the expiration of this year I leave my negro man Roger to be free from labor forever on his paying five pounds pr. year to the support of Patty and her children.”

Timberlake’s language indicates that she had been thinking ahead about the future of her enslaved people. Her enslaved man Isham was also to be freed and his five pounds per year along with Roger’s would support enslaved woman Patty and her children, Amey, Aaron, Alley, Clary, and Martha, along with an elderly enslaved man named Davy. The whole family was to be freed and receive two-thirds of a tract of Timberlake’s land and livestock. She also manumitted an enslaved woman named Venus and stipulated that Venus receive land and livestock. An enslaved woman named Mary was given to Timberlake’s relation, but she was to be freed when she turned twenty-five years old.

Wills stipulating freedom, as well as documents like deeds of emancipation and deeds of manumission, should not be read in a vacuum. Enslavers may have had righteous intentions about manumitting their enslaved people but if the executors of their estates didn’t follow through on carrying out the stipulations of the legal document, it left the human beings designated as property to fend for themselves. Legal complications were battled out in the courts for years—with only some ending with freedom being granted. But even in those cases, free Black and multiracial individuals continued to fight legal snares preventing them from earning money, gaining wealth, or living in Virginia as legally free citizens. Other battles ended with a continued life in bondage, despite the intentions of their deceased enslavers. The will that grants freedom is not the end of the story.

When Roger submitted his petition for freedom in March 1813, he described himself as “growing old…now having spent the best part of his life in slavery.” Five years later, at the death of William Ratcliffe, Roger was even older and still enslaved. Timberlake wrote that Roger was to be freed at the end of 1795. Twenty-three years later he was still fighting to re-gain his stolen freedom.

Looking for more freedom suits? Many users don’t realize that the Freedom Suits in Virginia Untold (like Roger’s case) were processed and digitized as “Judgments” which are heard in civil courts by a jury—but these are only a fraction of the freedom suits that are available for searching. Check out the Chancery Records Index, which has some digitized chancery records that contain freedom suits. Chancery Causes are cases of equity. According to Black’s Law Dictionary they are “administered according to fairness as contrasted with the strictly formulated rules of common law.” A judge, not a jury, determines the outcome of the case.

Roger’s court cases were originally a part of the Richmond (City) Ended Causes. These records are currently closed for processing, scanning, indexing, and transcription, a project made possible through a National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) grant. NHPRC provides advice and recommendations for the National Archives grants program. An announcement will be made when these records are added to the Virginia Untold project.


[1] Campbell, James M. Slavery on Trial: Race, Class, and Criminal Justice in Antebellum Richmond, Virginia. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2007. (pg 36)

Wade, Richard C. Slavery in the Cities: The South 1820-1860. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964. (pg. 105)

Lydia Neuroth

Project Manager - Virginia Untold

Leave a Reply