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Mathews County (Kingston Par­ish, now Kingston Epis­co­pal) — to Wil­liams­burg (Bru­ton Par­ish, Bru­ton Par­ish Epis­co­pal) men­tioned own­ing slaves in their vestry records.

Clergy were also slave own­ers un­til the eve of the Civil War. A 2006 re­port by the Vir­ginia The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary noted that 82% of the Epis­co­pal clergy tied to the Dio­cese of Vir­ginia in the 1860 cen­sus “had at least one slave, while some owned dozens.”

Oast, the his­tory pro­fes­sor, be­gan her re­search in 2000 while work­ing on her doc­tor­ate at Wil­liam & Mary. Col­leges, in­clud­ing Wil­liam & Mary, had en­slaved work­ers, and the col­leges were closely linked with churches. Her work cul­mi­nated in the 2016 book “I n sti t u t i o n a l S l ave r y: Slave­hold­ing Churches, Schools, Col­leges, and Busi­nesses in Vir­ginia, 16801860.”

“I wanted to look at how th­ese ‘phil­an­thropic or­ga­ni­za­tions’ that were sup­posed to be for the com­mon good, look at how they use slav­ery to pro­mote their mis­sion,” she said. “And how was their ex­pe­ri­ence of slav­ery dif­fer­ent than those who worked on a tra­di­tional plan­ta­tion.”

Oast said James Blair, an Angli­can min­is­ter and co­founder of Wil­liam & Mary, in­tro­duced the idea of slave-own­ing to col­leges and churches. Blair ar­rived in Vir­ginia in 1685 and by 1689 be­came the high­es­trank­ing cleric in the colony.

Blair, for whom sev­eral build­ings in Hamp­ton Roads are named, sug­gested that parishes buy slaves to en­tice ex­pe­ri­enced min­is­ters from Eng­land to set­tle in Vir­ginia. The en­slaved were in­cluded with the glebe, the land and home used by the min­is­ter. The en­slaved worked the land and made money for the min­is­ter. Churches also used en­slaved peo­ple in poor­houses to take care of or­phans, the dis­abled or el­derly, and hired them out to any busi­ness or en­ter­prise that wanted their la­bor.

The leg­is­la­ture also sent the en­slaved to churches. A 1691 law pe­nal­ized white women who had chil­dren with African Amer­i­can or mixed-race men. The off­spring, though born free, were re­quired to work for the par­ish un­til the age of 30.

At first, bene­fac­tors do­nated cat­tle to churches be­cause the cat­tle could re­pro­duce and in­crease the par­ish’s wealth. Oast no­ticed that af­ter 1680, as slav­ery be­came more preva­lent, church records de­scribe the do­na­tions of peo­ple as they did cows.

Thomas Walke III of Lynnhaven Par­ish, which later be­came Old Do­na­tion, in his 1760 will left the church 25 acres of “land and swamp” for the use of the dis­abled and or­phans in the par­ish. If the vestry, the board of direc­tors, thought it best, they could sell the prop­erty as soon as pos­si­ble and buy “breed­ing ne­groes.”

“Breed­ing, he’s talk­ing about women, not a man who will die in 20 years,” Oast said, “but a wo­man or mul­ti­ple women who will have chil­dren and they’re think­ing about it as longterm, grow­ing en­dow­ment.”

Oast said she saw it re­peat­edly in church and school records.

“You can see over time how there might be six peo­ple in the ini­tial do­na­tion and then there are 60, a large ex­tended fam­ily, that all be­long to the same in­sti­tu­tion.”

Church records were of­ten in­com­plete — they might ex­ist only for par­tic­u­lar years — or they no longer ex­ist at all. Oast said her re­search showed that the e n s l ave d owned by churches ap­peared to live a harsher ex­is­tence. Likely, she said, this was be­cause they did not have an in­di­vid­ual owner who had a per­sonal and fi­nan­cial in­ter­est in their sur­vival.

Churches auc­tioned the en­slaved once a year on hir­ing day, which was usu­ally Christ­mas Day or New Year’s, for one-year con­tracts.

While in­di­vid­ual slave own­ers tended to rent out adult slaves or slaves who were un­at­tached, churches typ­i­cally didn’t pro­vide long-term hous­ing for slaves and made sure they were all hired out or sent else­where each year. Even in­fants.

Oast found records of what were called “ex­pen­sive slaves.” Th­ese were moth­ers and their chil­dren; the church paid some­one to take them for the year.

If some­one wouldn’t want a worker be­cause she had chil­dren, the church looked for an en­tity and paid it to take the child. That might be a farm or plan­ta­tion that had small chil­dren be­ing looked af­ter by an older slave. Once chil­dren were old enough to make some money, they joined the work­ing pool, usu­ally by the time they were 8.

“So that means they were con­stantly sep­a­rated from each other; you couldn’t form long-term re­la­tion­ships with spouses and you never knew where they were go­ing to be one year to the next,” Oast said. “Chil­dren were sep­a­rated from their moth­ers just as soon as they could earn even one dol­lar.”

Oast said Bri­ery Pres­by­te­rian Church in Keysville, which dates to 1755, had the most com­plete records and re­ported the en­slaved it rented out each year. The records also de­tailed the phys­i­cal con­di­tion of the en­slaved.

Chil­dren owned by Bri­ery were twice as likely to die be­fore the age of 10 than en­slaved chil­dren on a plan­ta­tion, ac­cord­ing to Oast’s re­search.

Bri­ery’s records also re­veal that very few en­slaved peo­ple stayed at the same place for more than two or three years. About half went some­place dif­fer­ent ev­ery year.

One rea­son: Plan­ta­tions wanted young, strong male work­ers. As those men aged, they couldn’t fetch the same price and would be hired to an­other farm with a smaller bud­get.

“What’s re­ally ob­vi­ous from all th­ese records, in my opin­ion, is that it was all based on fi­nances,” Oast said. “It was all very cap­i­tal­is­tic.”

Af­ter the end of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War in 1783, the Angli­can Church was “d i s e s t a b l i s h e d ” and churches re­branded them­selves un­der the Epis­co­pal name.

In 2008, the Epis­co­pal Church is­sued a for­mal apol­ogy for its role in slav­ery

Daniel Ries, a mem­ber of Old Do­na­tion, went through the Sa­cred Ground pro­gram on his own and sug­gested to the rec­tor that the church use the se­ries. Ries, a re­tired en­gi­neer, said he lived decades and didn’t fully un­der­stand the ways in which racism socially and sys­tem­at­i­cally hurt African Amer­i­cans and other peo­ple of color un­til a few years ago as he trav­eled and read more books by Black au­thors and about Amer­i­can his­tory. It was then, he said, that he re­al­ized “that the his­tory that I had been taught wasn’t the full story and it wasn’t that un­com­mon.”

Once he learned about the en­slaved owned by the church dur­ing the Colo­nial era, he wanted to know more about them. He wants to know what hap­pened to them, if they had de­scen­dants — ques­tions he re­al­izes he prob­a­bly won’t find the an­swers to.

But the church, and so­ci­ety, can think about that loss and how it has cre­ated the is­sues Amer­ica deals with to­day.

“I think that an im­por­tant part of what white peo­ple have to do, OK, is to lis­ten to what peo­ple of color have been telling us for 400 years,” he said. “And so I’m lis­ten­ing to their voice.”

Denise M. Wat­son, 757-446-2504,denise.wat­son @pi­lo­ton­


James Blair, an Angli­can min­is­ter and co-founder of the Col­lege of Wil­liam & Mary, in­tro­duced the idea of slave-own­ing to col­leges and churches.


A para­graph in the Colo­nial Vestry Book of Lynnhaven Par­ish (now Old Do­na­tion Epis­co­pal Church) Princess Anne County Vir­ginia 1723-1786 shows an en­try of a slave who was sold.

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