The story of Debby and Tom: a white man’s will, two enslaved people, two terrible choices

Marble panel from the Charles Avery tomb, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA, 1860, showing a black family on the left, and a ship departing for Liberia on the right. Avery was a prominent funder of the American Colonization Society which sent thousands of newly freed people to the African colony in the decades before the Civil War.

As we’ve delved into  the complex racial and social history of whites, Cherokees, and blacks in western North Carolina, we’ve come across many amazing individual stories that we can’t include in the book (unless we want it to be seven volumes!).  But these stories have a lot to tell us about the complexities of race in America.  A trope that will be familiar to anyone who’s confronted a personal history of being descended from either the enslavers or the enslaved, is the myth of the “good slave owner.”  Many white people – many in our own families – cling desperately to any evidence that their ancestors were “good,” or at least better than those other enslavers.  Some use wills freeing the enslaved on certain conditions as evidence of the goodness of their ancestors. But in addition to the indefensible fact that these wills continue to enslave people until the owner’s death, they show us ways in which racism hides in such seemingly magnanimous gestures.  One such will was left by one of Will Thomas’s distant cousins, a man by the name of John Berry of Lincoln County.  Berry was a farmer and blacksmith who owned several valuable tracts of land and two black people, named Tom and Debby.

 

In his January 1833 will, Berry gave Tom and Debby a choice: after his death they could either remain in North Carolina enslaved, but to a master of their choice, or they could choose to be free, but only if they were willing to emigrate to Liberia – which meant giving up everything and everyone they knew, and taking a dangerous sea voyage to an entirely unfamiliar land.

 

“As to my two slaves, Tom & Debby, if they should choose to go to the land of Liberia or to the country provided by the colonization society for black people, in such case I appropriate 50 dollars toward bearing their expenses to said land & if that should not be sufficient to pay their passage there the said negroes to be hired out until they procured enough & then to be sent by my executors to said country[,] that if said slaves should not be willing to go to said land then in that case they together with the fifty dollars to fall back into my estate & the said negroes to choose their masters & be sold.”

It’s true that there were draconian manumission laws in effect at the time, making it difficult to simply free a person. Manumission  became much more difficult  in North Carolina after 1830, when the state legislature required owners to provide support for newly freed people and required the new freedmen to leave the state within 90 days. But it must be also understood that the group encouraging black emigration to Liberia – the American Colonization Society – was founded on ideas of racial purity and against race mixing.   Berry’s will was an early example of this manumission-and-deportation scheme. Eventually over 2,000 brave North Carolinians of African descent would choose to make the transatlantic voyage to Liberia, assisted by the Colonization Society.

 

Tom chose to remain in North Carolina, probably to remain with people he loved. We don’t know who he chose to be his master or what his fate was.  John Berry’s will bequeathed him a set of cooper’s tools (for barrel-making), suggesting that he was a skilled tradesman.  One can only hope he was able to hire himself out and earn the money to purchase his and his family’s freedom.

 

Remarkably, Debby chose Liberia. Berry gave her a “good suit of clothes” and ship fare. A document in his estate file indicates that not too long after his death the executors paid expenses amounting to $71.38 in all, for his headstone, coffin, funeral and other costs, and at the bottom of the list, these two items:

 

For suit of clothes for Debby: 5.00

For sending Debby to Liberia: 25.00

It was an extraordinary act of courage, for a single woman to embark on such a perilous journey into an unknown future — a testament to her determination to do whatever it took to be rid of slavery. This document is the last trace we have been able to find of her. We don’t know whether she completed the journey, much less how she may have fared in her new home.

 

A white descendant of Berry’s, reading the will, might be tempted to ascribe goodness to Berry.  But in circumstances like enslavement, “good” is an absolute term. To believe you can “own” another person is the negation of all that is good. We can say there were better or worse enslavers, but there could never be a truly good one; the only way to be a good enslaver would be to free the slaves immediately and without conditions.  Berry was among the “better” masters, but one must recognize that even in making that better choice, he chose not to inconvenience himself in life, either in the loss of their service to him, or in giving them better, more bearable choices. Any goodness in this situation can only be attached to the people he enslaved contending with the heart-rending choice they were given. One chose the pain of remaining enslaved, but with people he loved in a world he knew.  One chose freedom at the cost of everything and everything she knew. Both were heroically brave.

 

Berry’s will can be seen in the original on FamilySearch. His full estate file with the expense sheet (and an 1829 bill for a “cupping” treatment that he and Debby both received) is also on FamilySearch. We also recommend a book on black emigration from North Carolina to Liberia by Claude Andrew Clegg III, The Price of LibertyAfrican Americans and the Making of Liberia (UNC Press, 2009).

 

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