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November 16, 2012


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Alfred Brophy


I should know a lot more about this than I do. But let me ask a question about "voluntary" enslavement -- how often did that occur in the old South? I get that southern courts were enslaving people involuntarily and certainly were frequently standing in the way of emancipation. But I'm not familiar at all, really, with "voluntary" enslavement. This seems like something that the proslavery people would have talked a lot about because it would fit with their theme of the benefits of slavery for the enslaved people.

Taja-Nia Henderson

The practice was relatively rare; and whether these can be termed “voluntary” is (of course) questionable. Emily West of the University of Reading (UK) just published a book on the subject this year with University of Kentucky Press (Family or Freedom: People of Color in the Antebellum South; Nook preview available at As an aside, here’s a quick link to one of the statutes that I’m referring to: In 1856, the New York Times printed the text of Virginia’s “A Law for the Voluntary Enslavement of Free Negroes,” which purported to empower circuit courts to grant the enslavement petitions for free-born blacks. The statute made it “lawful for any free person of color . . . to choose his or her master.” It further provided that any such petition would be granted “[i]f upon such examination, the Court shall be satisfied that there is no fraud nor collusion between the parties . . .” NYT link here:

David Bernstein

Was the seven-year term inspired by the pact Jacob made with Laban?

Brando Simeo Starkey

Very interesting story. Like Al, I've never heard of such stories. I wouldn't call Jane Webb's actions voluntary though. The idea of voluntary slavery reminds me of plays and especially minstrel shows where slaves would voluntarily accept slavery because it was better than being free.

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