On August 1, 1791, Robert Carter III drafted a remarkable document. In a “Deed of Gift,” Carter set out a plan for the gradual manumission of 452 enslaved people he owned on plantations in the Tidewater and Shenandoah. Carter declared that he had “for some Time past been convinced that to retain them in Slavery is contrary to the true Principles of Religion and Justice, and that therefore it was my Duty to manumit them.”
The plan freed slaves gradually according to age. Though it was designed to withstand resistance from his heirs and the community, Carter’s children and his neighbors fought his plan fiercely in public and the courts. Carter’s document, however, withstood these challenges. Several decades after his death, Carter’s executors were still carrying out manumissions. Today thousands of people in Virginia and other states trace their ancestry to the more than 500 individuals ultimately emancipated by Carter’s deed.
On August 1, 2016—225 years to the day that Robert Carter III drafted his momentous deed--the exhibition Robert Carter III’s 1791 Deed of Emancipation opened at Historic Christ Church & Museum (HCC&M) in Weems. The exhibition explores Carter’s “Deed of Gift,” which was likely the largest single emancipation in American history before the Civil War. It uses historical images, documents and objects to trace Carter’s journey from grandson of Virginia’s largest slave owner (Robert “King” Carter) to emancipator; the exhibition also examines the slave communities at the Nomini Hall plantation network and the legacies former enslaved men and women like Solomon Dixon and Mary Harrison forged in a new world of freedom.
Riggs Ward of Richmond designed and installed the exhibition, which includes artifacts from Nomini Hall as well as several books from Carter’s extensive library. The books were loaned by Oatlands Historic House and Gardens, a National Trust for Historic Preservation site. HCC&M thanks Josslyn Stiner, Lori Kimball and Bonnie LePard from Oatlands for coordinating the book loans. We also thank Dr. James Jordan of Longwood University’s Historical Archaeology Program for loaning the Nomini Hall artifacts. Dr. Jordan first conducted archaeological excavations at Nomini in 1993.
Robert Carter III’s 1791 Deed of Emancipation is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays. It is sponsored in part by the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, and the J. Edwin Treakle Foundation, Inc.
Along with the exhibition, HCC&M is partnering with the Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Society, Mary Ball Washington Museum & Library and First Baptist Church, Heathsville to commemorate the 225th anniversary of Carter’s deed through several special programs, including a Summer Social & Exhibit Preview on August 19 and a commemoration event on August 20 featuring historical reenactors Gerry Underdown as Robert Carter III and James Ingram as black Baptist minister Gowan Pamphlet. Thomas Duckenfield, a descendant of the Thompson and Newman families manumitted by the deed, will also deliver remarks, and the choir from First Baptist Church will perform. A historic highway marker will be dedicated on September 10 near the site of the Northumberland District Courthouse where Robert Carter recorded the deed on September 5, 1791. Visit christchurch1735.org to learn more.