Barnett, the slave

We don't know where he was born – probably Virginia – and we don't know who his parents were.  But we do know the year he was born and who owned him.

Let's keep track of the basic records and at the end draw some conclusions.

In Mecklenburg County, Virginia, the county tax assessors finished their records on May 10, 1790.  Barnett's owner, William Hudson, Sr.; a distant grandfather; and he appear in the list.  He was 12 years old, so he was born in 1778.

On March 20 or 28, 1799, same county, in a personal tax list, William Hudson, Sr. and Barnett again appear together, along with four other slaves.  His age is not mentioned, but he is twenty-one, a prime working age.

Then, around 1804, William Hudson decides to move to Edgefield District, South Carolina, probably because his two daughters moved there and one settled in a neighboring county.

In a document dated November 28, 1809, William bequeaths Barnett to his daughter Polly and son-in-law Jeremiah Wilbourn.

Next, from Bethany Baptist church records, we know the exact date that Barnett was baptized in a white church: September 23, 1810.  They went down to the nearby river, and blacks and whites got baptized separately, whites first, blacks second, but at the same hour.  (See "Slaves and Owners Attend Pre-Civil War Church" for a complete membership list.)

Then a personal problem strikes Barnett.  Someone accuses him of disorderly conduct when he is thirty-four.  The church elders have to investigate.  He is found guilty of adultery and excommunicated.

Jeremiah Wilbourn moves across the Savannah River to Taliaferro County, Georgia, where he leaves behind probate records, dated January 1, 1830.  In the inventory and appraisement of his property, the appraisers name and value his slaves.  The important point about Barnett is that he is not in the list.  What happened to him?

His new owner, William Wilbourn (a distant grandfather and brother to Jeremiah), took him in.  However, William died on March 24, 1828, in his early fifties, young for back then.  And Barnett appears in his voluminous inventory and appraisement record, dated December 15, 1828 – Wilbourn was a wealthy landowner who owned about twenty slaves.  Barnett was valued at the very low price of $5.00 at fifty years old, while other slaves, males and females, were priced in the low hundreds (the highest was for a girl at $370.00).  

Why was Barnett's value so low? We don't know for sure, but we can deduce that he had a handicap of some kind.  (It is not likely that he was a troublemaking runaway, because at the estate sale, his mistress, Cary Wilbourn, the widow of Wilbourn and daughter of William Hudson, bought him back.)

From there to his death, the records for Barnett run out.

It's time to draw some conclusions from this simple social history, as distinct from the history of famous generals and politicians and major events, where our knowledge of America is incomplete.

It is difficult to read the word property and prices in the context of a human person, but that's a small slice of our history.  Objectivity without emotional reactions is possible.

The pastors and leaders of Bethany Baptist built up a righteous community in a sea of injustice.  I have not studied how many white-black churches sprang up in the South, but however few or many there were, they represented advancements on the rest of society (a strong hint about the positive impact of rightly interpreted Christianity on society, one inch at a time).  The church ended in the 1840s, so we can't know how the members felt about abolishing slavery before the Civil War.

One of the justifications for slavery that colonists and citizens of the early Republic deployed was to bring blacks from pagan Africa and teach them about Christ.  This justification fails because they had means other than slavery to fulfill their goals, but the biracial makeup of Bethany Baptist shows that individuals took the mission seriously.  Can anyone doubt that black churches today owe a debt to numerous churches like this one and black-only ones back then?  The faith continued.

These records about the one man Barnett could no doubt be multiplied by the thousands (except, one hopes, for the adultery).  This post is about honoring him and revealing the complexity of American history. 

James Arlandson website is Live as Free People, where he has posted Barnett the Slave: Documents (old handwritten documents that support this post) and A Defense of Joel Osteen.

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