A Voluntary Douglass "Slave for Life", A Vintage Vignette

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A Voluntary Douglass "Slave for Life"
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin

The earliest birth date inscribed on a tombstone in the Madison City Cemetery is 1805, for Eleanor White Douglass, wife of Thomas Douglass. The 1850 census showed that Thomas and Eleanor had at least 10 children and one slave, a 10-year old female. They were both born in Virginia and lived in Tennessee until about 1840, when they came to the Madison area. One of their daughters, Mary E. Douglass, married James F. Bronaugh in 1859. The Bronaugh connection shows up again in a document recently found in the Madison County Records Center archive of Probate Court files. This was the petition of a “free man of color” named John Williams (who was born free and received confirming papers in 1857) asking the probate judge to declare him a “slave for life” of Thomas Douglass, a somewhat similar process to that described for Hebrew slaves in the 21st chapter of Exodus.

The petition was filed June 4, 1860. It specified that John Williams resided in Madison County and was about 21 years of age. He was not found in the 1860 census records under his own name, but he may have been the same person as the only male slave (shown as age 25) enumerated under the ownership of Thomas Douglass that year. Such a petition suggests hopelessness about real freedom ever coming to Southern slaves or the possibility of cruel deception of an ignorant free black man. It may even have been a contrived publicity attempt to deceive the North about the preferences of Southern blacks. It perhaps simply addressed the horribly stark realities of life for some free blacks in the antebellum South. One motivation to become a slave for life was stipulated in the petition. Yet another can be inferred from the fact that Thomas Douglass had only four other slaves in 1860, and all of them were females, ages 22, 20, 18, and 13.

The main text of John William’s petition was worded as follows: “…having become satisfied that rights, liberties, and privileges exercised by free persons of color is (sic) mostly theoretical. Therefore, your petitioner, who is a free person of color and wedded to the South and being desirous to dwell and make the South his permanent place of residence has selected, under the act of the Legislature of the State of Alabama approved on February 25, 1860, Thomas Douglass as his owner and master. Wherefore your petitioner prays that his petition be accepted and filed, and that after due legal proceedings held in accordance with the act aforesaid, your petitioner be adjudged and decreed to be a slave for life of him, the said Thomas Douglass, and for such other relief as the case may require.” John Williams made his mark as an “X”. The document included the signatures of J. S. Bronaugh and J. F. Bronaugh as witnesses. James F. Bronaugh had been a son-in-law of Thomas Douglass for about a year at the time of the petition, just prior to initiation of the Civil War. James’ brother John S. Bronaugh was born in 1824 and married Mary E. Eldridge in 1847.

The petition of John Williams was one of only two found in the Madison County Records Center by archivist Donna Dunham. While his petition may or may not have been filed freely and with an understanding of what was written, historical records do not show that Williams remained with the Douglass family in this area. In fact, his petition to surrender his freedom was dismissed by the Probate Court in June of 1861. The 1870 census, after the Emancipation Proclamation, does not include John Williams in the area at all. However, Fannie Kelly Douglass, the widow of Thomas J., son of the older Thomas Douglass, did have six black “servants” listed with her and her daughter in their household per the 1880 census. Perhaps the Douglass family indeed provided well for their black associates through time.

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