This is the only known portrait of Robert Carter III, who freed more than 500 slaves decades before the Emancipation Proclamation.

Like Washington and Jefferson, he championed liberty. Unlike the founders, he freed his slaves

Updated 4:01 AM ET, Sun September 5, 2021

(CNN)It was 230 years ago Sunday that Robert Carter III, the patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in Virginia, quietly walked into a Northumberland County courthouse and delivered an airtight legal document announcing his intention to free, or manumit, more than 500 slaves.

He titled it the "deed of gift." It was, by far, experts say, the largest liberation of Black people before President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act and Emancipation Proclamation more than seven decades later.
On September 5, 1791, when Carter delivered his deed, slavery was an institution, a key engine of the new country's economy. But many slaveholders -- including founding fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who knew Carter -- had begun to voice doubts.
That was the extent of their umbrage.
Chattel slavery was wrong, the men said, but they supposedly worried it was not practical to abolish the institution without societal and economic consequences.
"As it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other," Jefferson wrote a fellow politician almost 30 years after Carter's deed of gift.
Yet Carter had provided them a blueprint, not only for freeing their slaves but for ensuring the freedmen could sustain themselves, even prosper and integrate into society. Washington freed his slaves after death. Jefferson freed only 10 people of the hundreds he enslaved.

Descendants: Deed is no footnote

Today, descendants of both Carter and the men and women he freed say more must be done to propel the largely uncelebrated deed of gift into the national conscience.
Meriwether Gilmore, who grew up in Westmoreland County, where Carter's Nomini Hall estate once spanned 2,000 acres, is related to Carter on her mother's side. Her sister is named after his mother and oldest daughter, Priscilla. Her father worked with Black churches in the area to commemorate the deed of gift's bicentennial in 1991.
Built in 1730, Nomini Hall burned down in 1850. In 2018, fire destroyed the rebuilt manor, seen here in 2014. It burned again amid restorations in 2019.
"I think the story of Robert Carter III is incredibly important," she said, "and not just to glorify another rich, White man, but to show how personal convictions can be stronger than the status quo, that doing the right thing is often hard but important and that people matter -- that people are more important than the work that they perform."
For Thomas Duckenfield, there's also a lesson in freedom's influence on generations. The Washington, DC, attorney and government contractor descends from the Thompsons and Newmans, of whom 50 were listed in Carter's deed of gift.
Since age 12, Duckenfield has enjoyed genealogy. At first, he focused on his father's side of the family. He had just delved into his mother's side when she brought him a newspaper clipping about "a twilight ceremony on a torch-lit clover field near the site of Nomini Hall."
"Some of the names sound like the ones you come tell me about at dinner after you've done some research," the 57-year-old recalled his mother saying of the event spearheaded by Gilmore's father, Frank Delano of Warsaw, Virginia.
"For African Americans, you hold your breath before the 1870 Census," Duckenfield said, explaining that records on slaves are shoddy. But examining his mother's family tree, he was surprised to see the "Thompson and Newman lines break through -- 1860, 1850, all the way back to 1800. I knew these people were free African Americans back to at least 1800."
Duckenfield wrote Delano, who mailed him a copy of the deed of gift. He later visited Delano and began collecting government records in Westmoreland County.
"I was able to identify folks I had found in census records, so I began building out their lives and how the family grew, their occupations from one decade to next," he said. "I was just awestruck this even had taken place."
Bicentennial organizer Frank Delano examines the Carter family cemetery at Nomini Hall in 2014.
In 1850 Census documents, he noticed his ancestors and adjoining families had two parents, a rarity in an era when slaveholders ripped families apart. Tax records from 1880 onward indicate a trend of education, land ownership and gainful employment -- not just in planting and agriculture but an array of occupations.
His ancestors had wills and passed on wealth, he said. By the 1930s, they were graduating from colleges and entering the teaching and nursing professions. In the 1950s, women in his family were attaining a variety of professional degrees.
"I think that we who are descended from that manumission had advantages in the sense that we were positioned maybe to be the first to achieve wealth," the lawyer told CNN. "Yes, we benefited from having been manumitted by Robert Carter III."

'A pilot for mass emancipation'

Delano wasn't available for an interview due to his health, but Gilmore said her father, who has been passionate about civil rights going back to his University of Virginia days in the 1960s, always had a strong interest in Carter. He was so impressed with the ancient poplars lining the drive to Nomini Hall that he planted trees along the driveway to their old home, she recalled.
Gilmore came across the deed of gift while taking an African American history class her senior year in high school, she said. She "felt really passionate about finding those lost stories -- and I'm sure that my dad reminded me that we had some of those stories right at home in Westmoreland County." She continued looking for those stories in graduate school, focusing her master's thesis on a Jim Crow housing ordinance in Ashland, Virginia, where she lives now.
For Gilmore and others, it's a mystery that the legacies of Carter and his deed of gift remain hidden in history.
To grasp the oddness of his erasure, it's necessary to understand his lofty station among the Virginia gentry of his day. He counted Washington's half-brother, Lawrence, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson as friends; he regularly dined with and loaned money to the latter. Washington himself was a neighbor, and Robert E. Lee's mother was the great granddaughter of his grandfather, Robert "King" Carter.
In 1750, Robert Carter III planted poplars along the drive to Nomini Hall, seen here in 2014. Tutor Philip Vickers Fithian wrote of them: "These Rows of Poplars form an extremely pleasant avenue, & at the Road, through them, the House appears most romantic, at the same time that it does truly elegant."