Benjamin Bilberry, Free Man and Devoted Husband

Love should never be a hard feeling to achieve, it should never be dictated by others. Yet, during slavery, enslaved people had to fight for their love. They had to fight even harder to keep their loved ones together. For many, only stories of the horrendous difficulties of slavery are passed down through oral tradition. Yet, with excellent record keeping, some of the oral stories can be verified.

Around the year of 1790 in Richmond, Virginia, a free person of color by the name of Benjamin Bilberry loved his wife dearly. Somehow, Benjamin Bilberry was free, whether born or granted, he was a free man of color. He owned land, likely not much, but enough. His wife, who went by the name Kate, was enslaved by a man named Abraham Cowley. Benjamin traded what land he had in the hopes that it would grant his wife’s freedom from Abraham. However, the hopes of freeing his wife with his land fell short and “instead of liberating his said wife and freeing her perpetually from the Shackles of Bondage has only changed her master.” Benjamin had incidentally become his own wife’s master.

Being the “master” of his wife, bothered Benjamin. He acknowledges that even to “his uncultivated Mind it is irksome to know that he himself, by the Laws of this, now independent Common Wealth, is forced to hold his own Wife in a Slavish Bondage without the power of making her as free as himself.” These are the words and thoughts spoken by Benjamin Bilberry. Some states required free people of color to own slaves in order to remain living in the state. I cannot verify whether or not Virginia was one of those states, but what is clear is that the laws restricted Bilberry from being able to personally free his wife.

These constrained laws are what forced Benjamin to go to the courts to petition a request to free his wife. He prays that “no policy may restrict you Honor from suffering him to enjoy the sweet reflection of having spent the whole labours [sic] of his Life in bestowing freedom on one equal by nature…to himself and whom he has chosen to be the partner of his worldly Cares.” Benjamin is pleading with the courts. He just wants to be able to love his wife freely and have her love him freely without the titles of being enslaved constricting their true emotions. He wants her to be as free as he currently is to make her own decisions. He wants their love to be genuine and pure and not tainted by the terms such as “Master” and “Slave.”

The original document was located and examined. Within the words of the petition, it clearly states that Benjamin is requesting his wife’s freedom. The outcome of Benjamin Bilberry’s petition is reported to have been granted. Kate, Benjamin’s wife, was permitted to be free and no longer an enslaved person.

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