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

King Carter was a man of enormous wealth and power, a colonial governor who owned about 1,000 slaves and more than 300,000 acres of land. He died in 1732, about three months after Carter III’s father, leaving the boy with a fortune. Carter III was much wealthier than the younger Washington and Jefferson. The sprawling Nomini Hall, which is tough to locate on a map today, was just one of his 16 plantations.

A religious wanderer drawn later in life to integrated churches, Carter III was not the first to free his slaves. Others, middle-class Quakers and Baptists among them, had released a few slaves here, a few there, but none rivaled Carter’s deed, which established a schedule to free 511 slaves, starting with the oldest and later their children.

Carter also allowed the freedmen to choose their last names so they could keep families together and pass down wealth. He ensured they had salable skills, arranged for them to buy or lease land, and bought their wares. He also spent a great deal on transporting them from his plantations to the Northumberland courthouse, and on lawyers to guarantee his heirs – some none too happy he was paring their inheritance – didn’t undo his wishes.

“Carter’s plans look more like a pilot for mass emancipation,” Andrew Levy, a professor at Butler University, told CNN. “He was having to think through these issues.”

A noble act went unheralded…

So, how has this great manumission remained largely unknown outside of a handful of history buffs and the growing body of descendants? There are theories.

One is that Carter shunned attention, as evidenced by his unmarked grave at Nomini Hall. Gilmore struggled to find “personal writings that would speak to his feelings on the issue” while writing her high school paper, she recalled.

A certificate of freedom for one of the freedmen reads, "Dennis Johnston, a Male Negro aged about twenty seven years of dark Complexion five feet ten or eleven inches, stout and well made liberated By Benjamen (sic) Dawson, trustee for Robert Carter by Deed dated the 3rd day of November 1799, and duly recorded in the County Court of Frederick. Registered this 2nd day of February 1809."

A platitude is the only clue Carter left in the deed: “I have for some time past been convinced that to retain them in Slavery is contrary to the true Principles of Religion and Justice and that therefor (sic) it was my duty to manumit them.”

Another hypothesis is that, unlike wealthy contemporaries such as Jefferson, Madison and Washington, Carter was not great at politics and thus didn’t inspire their enduring legend. A third postulation is the manumission was so deeply unpopular – neighbors complained, and one threatened to torch Carter’s home – it didn’t compel much documentation. A brief in a Richmond newspaper constitutes the bulk of the coverage.

Levy, whose books include a biography of Carter, “The First Emancipator,” has another suspicion: America doesn’t care – because it’s inconvenient.

“It blows an enormous hole in this legacy we’re trying to balance for these founders,” he said.

As Levy sees it, American history feebly attempts to level the founding fathers’ fondness for freedom with their ownership of humans by uncritically parroting their assertions that there was no pragmatic way to emancipate hundreds of thousands of slaves. Slavery was a necessary evil, to hear the founders tell it.

“If Carter is the anti-Jefferson,” Levy wrote in his book, “the man who did not lack the will to free his own slaves but who did lack the vision and clarity to make his love of freedom eloquent, then the Deed of Gift is the anti-Declaration of Independence, a document that makes liberty look dull but which is so absent of loopholes and contradictions that no result but liberty could prevail.”

The Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Society has been honoring those manumitted by Carter since 2008. A highlight of the 2016 ceremony was the unveiling of a highway marker, which the society secured funding for. Here, Regina Baylor, a descendant of nine WIlson family members who Carter freed, and Carter descendant Charles Belfield pose with the sign.