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The legal system can seem like a complicated tangle of arcane rules and loopholes, and it can sometimes seem like it is designed to confuse. But it is possible, with the right application, for the legal system to rectify injustices. Today we're going to tell you about one instance of this, the story of Elizabeth Key, who in 1665 won her freedom in a court in Virginia.

Clint's book, How the Word is Passed:

Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1998).

TAUNYA LOVELL BANKS, Dangerous Woman: Elizabeth Key’s Freedom Suit - Subjecthood and Racialized Identity in Seventeenth Century Colonial Virginia (2008), (last visited Aug 20, 2020).

Leslie Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1629-1863 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

Jennifer L. Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

Anthony Parent Jr., Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740 (Chapel Hill: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

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CC Kids:

#crashcourse #blackhistory #slavery
Hi, I’m Clint Smith, and this is Crash Course Black American History. It can sometimes feel like lawyers and legislators  are always using the law to give us complicated explanations, loopholes, and messy language  that leaves most of us feeling like we have absolutely no idea what’s going on.

And I mean this is understandable! First of all, the law can be hard to decipher. Second of all, the law is pretty much, /only/  as fair as its application.

Additionally, we can see in our day-to-day lives that even though  something can be “legal,” it isn’t necessarily   /fair/. Sometimes the law is either designed to  be applied in an unjust way /or/ is inherently unjust – especially when those in power, have the  goal of oppressing and profiting off of others. Despite these realities, the /beauty/ of the law,  at it’s best, is that with the right argument and the right application, injustices can  be remedied.

And today we’re going to talk about that through the story of Elizabeth Key – a  woman who obtained her freedom, while navigating a deeply unjust system.

INTRO I want to note up top that this episode  will address some challenging topics like sexual violence and images of extreme violence. Elizabeth Key was a biracial woman who was born in Warwick County, Virginia in 1630.

She was one of  the few enslaved people able to gain her freedom through the colonial legal system. Elizabeth Key’s mother was Black. But Taunya Lovell[a] Banks – a legal scholar and  professor – states that at the time, there was probably no meaningful difference between being  labelled a “negro” and being labelled a “slave.” According to society and the courts,  the labels were effectively the same, because at that time and place, almost all people  of African descent were assumed to be enslaved.

Elizabeth’s father was a White Englishman named  Thomas Key, who arrived in the colony of Virginia in 1616. There is some evidence, that Thomas did  have some emotional attachment to his daughter. In fact, he attempted to make sure  Elizabeth was relatively well provided for, but this didn’t come to pass.

You see, Elizabeth’s parents were unmarried. Not only that, but Thomas Key was legally married  to another woman while he was involved with  . Martha.

Due to her complicated status as a Black  child born out of wedlock, and a child born of an enslaved woman, Elizabeth was expected to work as  an indentured servant until she was a teenager. Her father made an agreement with a  wealthy settler named Humphrey Higginson, who then transferred possession of her to a  farmer, named John Mottrom . She was supposed to be under Higginson’s care for nine years, and  that stipulation also transferred to Mottrom.

Her father, however, died soon after making the  initial agreement and Higginson left for England and just never returned – leaving her in  a vulnerable, and uncertain position. She was a teenager, of African  descent, with no advocates. So not only was she bartered into servitude by  her father, the original terms of the agreement, also weren’t honored.

Elizabeth ended up working  for John Mottrom ten additional years – WELL past the time laid out in the original agreement. In spite of this situation though, Elizabeth built as much of a life for herself as possible. She started a relationship with a White indentured servant named William Grinstead,  and together they had a child, named John.

When Mottrom died in 1655, the heirs of his  estate reclassified Elizabeth and her son  . John--changing them from indentured servants, to  enslaved people. This was an attempt by the estate to take advantage of the small family and acquire  more property by declaring them human chattel.

But Elizabeth, she wasn’t going to just  stand for this! With William Grinstead, her partner-turned-lawyer, she took  this injustice to the court. Taking advantage of the fact that  Elizabeth was of African ancestry, a woman, and was also considered illegitimate  because her parents were unmarried, the Mottrom Estate argued that  Elizabeth was a servant for life, and basically already enslaved.

But Elizabeth pushed back against this argument. She made three points. Her first two arguments  focused on her status within slaveholding Virginia while the last argument focused on the terms of  the “agreement” between her father, Higginson, and the later transfer to John Mottrom.

Let’s go to the Thought Bubble. First, Elizabeth emphasized that her father was a  White, free man – and that she should be granted her freedom because of her paternal lineage. Second, Elizabeth stressed that she was a baptized Christian and that she could not be enslaved as a  result of her Christian faith.

This argument may not really resonate with us now, but it was vital  in this case because there was some legal debate during this time about whether Christians could,  one, enslave other Christians, and, more directly,   /if/ Christians could be enslaved for life. On the other hand, English indentured servants that sued for their freedom rarely had to address  their Christianity or their lineage – they were assumed to be free and Christian solely  because, well, they were White.[1] But, Elizabeth was forced to address  these key points in her case before addressing the unjust enslavement itself. Which brings us to our third argument.

Elizabeth’s partner and lawyer William Grinstead  argued that Key should have been free in the first place because the initial agreement said Elizabeth  was only supposed to be an indentured servant for a limited time, and that time had passed. Ultimately, these arguments compelled the court to rule in Elizabeth’s favor –  freeing both her and her son. Thanks, Thought Bubble.

So this story  of Lawyers, legislators, and the law actually had a happy ending. Elizabeth and her son  were freed, she legally married William Grinstead, and they all lived happily ever after! Right?

I mean, the other side of this is that Elizabeth  lost /years/ of her life because she was subject to a woefully unjust system that was designed  to protect the practice of holding human beings as property. And it’s clear  that a White indentured servant under similar circumstances would not be required  to jump through /any/ of those legal hoops. Furthermore, many individuals who were subject  to similar injustices during this time, actually did not receive their freedom –  whether they made it to court or not.

The reality was that, put simply, Elizabeth  was lucky. And if only lucky people win in the legal system… then how just  is the system in the first place? The story of Elizabeth Key is a powerful  example of perseverance and accountability and one that’s still worth reflecting on today.

It is a compelling and even an inspiring story, one of a woman who fought back against  a system that attempted to keep her and her son in chains, and she won. But as inspiring as her story is, it also serves as a reminder that Elizabeth’s  story is the /exception/ to the rule. That vast majority of people who found themselves  in similar positions to Elizabeth Key were not able to go to court and  litigate their way to freedom.

Stories like hers are unfortunately just  very rare. And /because/ they are so rare, they remind us of the larger, systematic  issues that so many Black people faced, people whose names we’ll never know. Thanks  for watching, I’ll see you next time.

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