Freedom Document Certificate of Freedom of Harriet Bolling, Petersburg, Virginia, 1851. Carter G. Woodson Collection, Manuscript Division. (2-2)

This certificate indicates that the forty-two-year-old Harriet Bolling was freed by James Bolling in 1842. Freeborn blacks could stay in Virginia, but emancipated African Americans were generally required to leave the state. This certificate states that the court allowed Bolling "to remain in this Commonwealth and reside in Petersburg."

According to historian Luther P. Jackson, at its height in 1830 almost one quarter of antebellum Petersburg’s population was composed of free people of color (while enslaved persons comprised a full quarter of the overall population). [i] In Virginia, unlike slave societies in the Caribbean and Latin America, free people of color were prohibited from voting, holding office, pursuing education, or serving in the militia or on juries, and in the 1830s new laws prohibited free blacks from preaching or pursuing education outside Virginia and returning.  Despite these restrictions that endeavored to reduce the legal status of free people of color to that of enslaved persons in Virginia, free people of color could and did legally own property and engage in business (and pay taxes).  Many of Petersburg’s free black families were quite successful.

In antebellum Petersburg, before railroads began to eclipse riverine transport in the mid-nineteenth century, most free people of lived in Pocahontas Island and made their living from the water.  Richard Jarrett, for example, born in Pocahontas around 1779, owned a business carrying cargo between Petersburg and Norfolk.  Records show that he owned at least two quite valuable lots and a home in Pocahontas in the 1820s as well paid a tutor to educate his children.  His son, Alexander Jarrett, born in Pocahontas in 1806, worked as a steward on a “vessel which ran to New York” before he married into the Fuller family of Norfolk.  Alexander’s father-in-law, John Fuller, and Fuller’s four sons emigrated to Liberia in 1855 (where one of these sons became mayor).  Alexander’s business took him between Petersburg, Norfolk, and New York.

Antebellum Petersburg was also a center of industry, as well as trade.  Numerous free people of color were successful as skilled artisans and mechanics. Major Elbeck was a successful mechanic who moved to Petersburg from Pennsylvania in 1802.  He and his work were so highly valued that in 1810, 175 of  Petersburg’s white residents, including the mayor, signed a petition for the  legislature requesting Mr. Elbeck be permitted to continue residing in Petersburg with his wife and young children despite a statute prohibiting free blacks from out of state taking up permanent residence in Virginia. [ii]

Elbeck’s children were quite successful as well.  Among them a barber and a businessman, collectively they owned a lot and a building worth $1,400 in 1832.  Elbeck’s daughter, Sarah, married into another free black Petersburg family prominent in business, the Colsons.

The Colsons, like the Jarretts and the Elbecks, spanned several generations as a distinguished Petersburg family. The patriarch, James Colson, purchased a Petersburg lot in 1804 from a white merchant; in 1820 this property was valued at $1,050 and he had accrued as second lot valued at $131.25.  His estate was inherited by his son William Colson who began his career as a barber but after his marriage to Sarah Elbeck, partnered with her brother and became a businessman.

William Colson, in association with Nelson Elbeck, formed an international trading firm with another free black family connected to Petersburg’s river trade, the Roberts family.  James Roberts was a free black boatman who carried trade between Norfolk and Petersburg and ultimately settled in the latter.  His step son, Joseph Jenkins Roberts emigrated from Petersburg to Liberia where he established the trading company Roberts, Colson, and Company.  William Colson exported goods from Petersburg to Liberia (cloth, tobacco) and Roberts exported materials from Liberia to Philadelphia (ivory, palm oil, wood). Colson also spent time in Liberia, returning to the US in 1833 (residing again in Petersburg for a  two year period, while traveling intermittently to Washington, Philadelphia, and New York on business) and left detailed records of his accounts. [iii]

Joseph Jenkins Roberts’ success as a trader and businessman helped to pave the way for his historic role as Liberia’s first black governor and ultimately the new nation’s first president and international ambassador.  Roberts met with heads of state such as England’s Queen’s Victoria representing the new republic [iv] and later traveled widely to seek support for the Liberia College, where he also served as president and as well as taught.  One of Roberts’ brothers served as Liberia’s first black bishop while another attended medical school.

Jane Rose Waring, Liberia’s first first lady, J. J. Roberts’ (second) wife, also hailed from a prominent Petersburg free black family.  Her father Colton Waring was a trustee of Gilfield Church and a missionary who, in 1824, led nearly one hundred free black Petersburg residents to resettle in Liberia where he replaced Lott Carey as Vice-Agent and pastor of Providence Baptist Church.  After her father’s death, Jane Rose’s mother, Harriet Waring, remarried to Nathanial Brander, a Petersburg native in Liberia who had traveled to Sierra Leone in 1820 with the ACS. “By 1843, Nathaniel Brander was a Supreme Court Judge and Harriet Graves Waring Brander was a milliner. Milliner was a higher status occupation for women in America, and Mrs. Justice Brander could remain among the first families of Liberia while making and selling bonnets….Her daughters married prominent men in the Liberian colony and the African republic. The Warings' oldest child, Susanna, married John N. Lewis whose family accompanied the Warings from Petersburg in 1824.” [v]

William Colson died shortly after his return to Liberia in 1835, [vi] but his children with Sarah continued as prosperous free black residents of Petersburg.  Their son, James Colson, born in 1830, was an extremely successful shoemaker, renowned for his ability to customize a shoe and commanding $400.00 in Confederate money for boots during the Civil War.  In 1852, James Colson married Fannie Meade Bolling, a very literary free woman of color known for her poetry as well as for founding a private school in Petersburg after the Civil War.  One of James and Fannie’s sons, James Major Colson III ultimately graduated from Dartmouth College in 1883 after which he returned to live in Petersburg. [vii]

[i] Much of the information here is found in Luther Porter Jackson’s “Free Negroes of Petersburg, Virginia,” The Journal of Negro History , Vol. 12 No. 3 (July 1927) pp. 365-388.

[ii] In 1793 the Virginia legislature passed a statue prohibiting free people of color from out-of-state from taking up permanent residence in Virginia.  In 1806, the General Assembly enacted a statute that henceforth, manumitted persons who remained in Virginia in excess of a year were automatically forfeiting their freedom and would be sold.  These measures were among the efforts of Virginia legislators to reduce the size of the free black population.  However, it was not uncommon for skilled persons and persons regarded as “industrious” to circumvent these statutes with petitions.

[iii] Colson left abundant memoranda of this two-year period, including a detailed inventory of his luggage for his return voyage to Liberia that included “seventeen white cravats” and twenty-three books.

[iv] Roberts’ diplomatic missions garnered recognition for the Republic of Liberia from Great Britain, France, Portugal, several German cites, Brazil, and Haiti.  The United States did not recognize Liberia (nor the black nation of Haiti which had achieved independence in 1804, forty years before Liberia) until the presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

[v] Marie Tyler-McGraw, "Harriet Graves Waring: Reluctant Founding Mother," Virginia Emigrants to Liberia, Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia (

[vi] Virginia State University’s Special Collections contains a handwritten letter dated January 1, 1836, from Joseph Jenkins Roberts in Monrovia, Liberia to Sarah Colson in Petersburg to tell her of her husband’s passing and offering condolence.

[vii] Jackson, Luther. “Free Negroes of Petersburg,” pp. 377-378.

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