Not all Black people were slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries, however, racism imposed barriers that affected even free Blacks. Matthew Ashby was a free man of mixed racial heritage who lived in Williamsburg just before the Revolution but he still faced barriers owing to racial intolerance.
Born in York County in 1727, Ashby was the son of a Black man and Mary Ashby, a White woman who was an indentured servant. He was born free because, at the time, a child inherited his or her mother’s social status. But under Virginia law, a biracial child was required to be indentured to another family as an apprentice for 31 years. In other words, a biracial child must work for a family until age 16, and then work on a plantation until 31, when they would become free.
Such was the case of Ashby, who gained his freedom at 31. But there were limits to this freedom, as already stated. Per laws at the time, free Blacks were not to hold meetings or visit enslaved people. Colonial authorities feared that free Blacks would influence enslaved people. Free Blacks were also not allowed to vote or possess weapons. In most colonies, they did not have the right to trial by jury and could not travel without passes.
History says that in 1756, there were some 120,000 Blacks in Virginia, constituting 41 percent of Virginia’s total population of 293,000. Only about 3,000 of these Blacks were free. Besides being denied many privileges, many White businessmen refused to work with free Blacks. Ashby was able to succeed in Williamsburg amid the discrimination. Despite not being literate, he prospered more than most free Blacks. He worked as a messenger carrying diplomatic papers for Virginia governor Norborne Berkeley. Ashby also worked as a carpenter and took on odd jobs.
“From what we know, he was able to earn a living, maintain a family without being harassed,” Robert C. Watson, assistant professor of history and political science at Hampton University, was quoted by Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Because he lived in the capital [Williamsburg] as opposed to someone who lived in a rural area, and because people knew him enabled him to move around with more ease.”
Ashby married Ann, an enslaved woman owned by bricklayer Samuel Spurr. They had two children. Although Ashby was free, his wife and children were not so he had to work through the legal system to eventually buy his wife and kids and ultimately free them from slavery. He achieved this in 1769 when he purchased his enslaved wife and their two children, John and Mary, from Samuel Spurr for 150 pounds.
Ashby now owned his wife after the purchase, but he could not declare her as a free Black under Virginia law. Thus, that same year, he successfully petitioned authorities to set his wife and children free. It is believed that his jobs helped him connect with some important people who helped him secure freedom for his family.
As one who knew the significance of formal education, Ashby’s children attended the Bray School, established in Williamsburg in 1760 for African-American children. They were taught not only reading and writing but catechism, speaking, cleanliness, and obedience.
Ashby during his last days became part of a secret network of free Blacks that provided shelter for runaway slaves in Williamsburg. An ad for a runaway slave in the Virginia Gazette of October 25, 1770, reads: “RUN away from the subscriber, in Amelia county, on the 29th of September last, a very likely young negro man slave named SAM, about 19 years of age. He is a tall spare made fellow, with a scar under his jaw. His apparel not known, as he had changeable suits of them. He pretends to lay claim to freedom, and is now harboured at one Matthew Ashby’s, a mulatto, in Williamsburg, as I am informed.”
In 1771, less than two years after freeing his wife and children, Ashby died. His estate listed four horses, furniture, candle-making equipment, four cows, a silver watch, books, and a teaboard.