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A Story of Emancipation in Christiansburg

Slaveholding was widespread in Montgomery County.  By 1840, enslaved persons made up twenty percent of the population.  In Christiansburg, enslaved persons resided in half of the town’s households. Yet, not everyone was satisfied with the institution of slavery. Among those locally who wanted something different was Dorthea Bratton, the daughter of a prominent Staunton physician and statesman, Col. William Fleming and the widow of Captain James Bratton. Mrs. Bratton became convinced that the plan of the American Colonization Society (ACS), which was founded in 1816 to help freed black people immigrate to Liberia in West Africa, was the best choice for the slaves under her ownership.

In August of 1847, Nicholas Chevalier, the pastor of the Christiansburg Presbyterian Church and principal of both the Montgomery Male and Montgomery Female Academies, wrote a letter to the secretary of the American Colonization Society (ACS) on behalf to Dorothea Bratton, who wanted to free twenty of her enslaved persons and send them to Liberia. Chevalier said that Mrs. Bratton, then 70 years of age, was financially unable to pay their passages and supplies. Concerns about the project from Mrs. Bratton, the potential emigrants, and the opposition from her son-in-law, Dr. Hugh Kent, warranted the assistance of ACS. Reverend Chevalier wrote that this was “exactly one of the cases contemplated by the ACS founders & those who contribute to its funds.”  

Chevalier’s personal feelings about slavery may have been complex. He was born in Connecticut, a non-slave holding state, and professed to the ACS secretary that he was a life member of the society. Yet, census records show that he held three enslaved persons (a young woman and two children) in 1850 and four enslaved persons in 1860 (a young woman and three children).  However, Chevalier’s wife, Bethany Stuart, was a Southerner with strong ties to slave-holding. She was the sister of Confederate General J.E.B Stuart and her father, Archibald Stuart held many slaves on his Patrick County plantation.

After a legal battle, Mrs. Bratton was able to emancipate two families as well as four children without their parents. On December 22, 1847, this party left Christiansburg for Baltimore accompanied by an ACS agent. On February 5, 1848, they sailed for Liberia aboard the Amazon arriving in Monrovia, Liberia on March 14, 1848. Two of the Bratton members died shortly after arriving, probably from malaria. Like so many other black immigrants to Liberia, the party was plagued by sickness and other troubles during the early part of their settlement, but there is some evidence that by September 1848, they were sending more favorable reports of their situation.

Photograph of Dorothea Bratton’s Grave Stone Courtesy of FindAGrave.com

Despite the difficulties both to herself and her first group of emigrants, Dorothea Bratton undertook to send a second group of twelve emigrants to Liberia in July 1848, but in the end only four made the journey. In 1850, the census found Dorothea Bratton with only a ten-year-old free black named James Brown in her household. Mrs. Bratton died August 6, 1852 and is buried in Kyle Cemetery in Christiansburg, Virginia.

An Untold Story of Troubled Times

How do we learn about the past? So often the items that are passed down to us are random and incomplete – chance often has a role to play.  That is what happened in 2014 when Jim Page found a packet of letters concerning the Mary Snider Sullivan family of Christiansburg in his father’s papers. Though the Sullivans had no relationship to the Page family, the letters survived and were donated to the Montgomery Museum. These letters have an important story to tell.

Letter to Lake Sullivan from her mother, Mary Snider Sullivan, 1869.
(Montgomery Museum Collection)

Two of the letters give a window into the Reconstruction era between April 1865 and 1870 when Virginia was readmitted to the Union. The first letter was written by Mary Sullivan on June 9, 1869 to her daughter, Lake, a teacher in Tennessee. Buried in Mrs. Sullivan’s rambling, gossipy letter is an account of an inflammatory re-election speech made by then-Governor Henry H. Wells, a Union general who was appointed as provisional military governor in 1868.

                    . . . Governor [Wells] spoke here about ten days ago you never heard of anything that could equal the advice
                    he gave the negroes. . . He told them to let the plow rot in the furrow . . . the grain rot in the field rather than
                    be kept from the poles [polls] and if needs be whet there [their] daggers and use them . . .

Mrs. Sullivan goes on to say that in the evening, there was nearly a “row” after Rice D. Montague was struck by a black man. In response, “white men and boys flew to his rescue with clubs and anything they could get in their hands and made the negroes fly. . .”

Without the benefit of a second eye-witness account for this event, we must remember that Mrs. Sullivan’s own attitudes may have affected her descriptions. History adds only that Rice D. Montague was highly respected among the local white community and served as Montgomery County Clerk of Court between 1831 and 1858. A former slave owner, he held 28 slaves in 1860.

The story of a community bristling with racial tension is continued in a second letter on July 25, 1869 to Lake from her brother Arthur O. Sullivan, who was a wounded Confederate veteran. Like his mother, he informs his sister of local happenings, but he also discusses the tense racial and political atmosphere reporting that “I have not been able to find a white man that voted for Wells – he will say that he did not.” Governor Wells was soundly defeated by his opponent, Gilbert Walker, in the July 6, 1869 election. Of even greater interest is Arthur Sullivan’s mention that the runner-up in the political race for the Montgomery County representative to the Virginia Legislature was a widely respected Montgomery County African American blacksmith, Minnis Headen. Dr. Dan Thorp found, in the research for his book Facing Freedom, that this letter is the only known evidence that Headen was the first Montgomery County African American to run for office.

How easily these stories could have been lost! The preservation of these letters by the Page family has added to our understanding of the past and serves as a reminder of what you can do by thinking of the museum as a repository for historic things.

Learn more about the history of Montgomery County African Americans in Facing Freedom, now on sale in the museum book shop.

Sources:

Roy Kanode, Christiansburg, Virginia

Dan Thorp, Facing Freedom

Familysearch.org