Given the propensity of colonial legal documents to render enslaved women invisible, ‘Black’ Betty’s presence in the 1698 records of her enslavers is remarkable.
The story of the Washington family is usually told as a heroic tale featuring a few key male family members. Recent work, though, has shown the role that slavery played in the family’s seventeenth- and eighteenth-century rise. This lecture focuses on one particular woman named Betty, whose mixed-race children at the end of the 1600s were both kin to and enslaved by the Washingtons. Using her connections and the ambiguity of Virginia law, Betty was able to secure freedom for two of her sons and education for her six other children. Betty’s story highlights the complicated mix of kinship and racial categories that already had taken form even as planters were still establishing the legal contours of Virginia slavery.