Families Torn apart: It Has Happened Here. It Is Happening Here.

BRENTSVILLE, Va. — It has happened before. Families torn apart.  Crying children wrenched from the arms of sobbing parents. Uncertainty over whether the family would ever be reunited or forever separated. Lack of due process, yet actions taken under the color of law.

On the steps of the antebellum courthouse here in Prince William County, in the “Public Lot” when the court was in session, citizens gossiped, and farmers came to sell their wares, and, a historic plaque mentions, almost incidentally, “Some auctions included slaves.”

Thus, on Jan. 12, 1846, a broker advertised a trustee’s auction of the estate of one John Hooe Jr., that included 400 acres and “ALSO the following Slaves, to wit: REUBEN, NANCY, LUCINDA, THORNTON, PARIS, MARY ANN, BILL, SALLY, LAURINDA, BETSY, HORACE, DAVY, and RICHARD, and the increase of the females since the date of the deed.”

In other words, babies.

Prince William County, in 1860, had a population of 8,213—5,690 whites, 2,356 slaves and 167 “other.”  Today, the county, which includes Marine Corps Base Quantico and the often congested I-95 corridor, is a minority-majority jurisdiction of more than 400,000 that is one-fifth Latino—and a board of supervisors whose three-term chair extols the Confederate flag and boasts about the number of “criminal illegal aliens” (more than 7,500) he has caused to be detained and deported—some of them forced to leave their American-born children.

That man, Corey Stewart, is now the Republican Party’s chosen candidate to take on incumbent Democratic Senator Tim Kaine in the fall.  Stewart was endorsed by Donald Trump, whose Virginia campaign he ran in 2016, and opposed by the party establishment, whose candidate he narrowly beat.

The Minnesota-born Stewart brings an antebellum sensitivity to the race. He is a staunch defender of Confederate monuments, and of Confederate icons Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, “heroes of the Commonwealth.” Last year, during his unsuccessful run for governor, he proudly stood next to a Confederate flag which, he said, “is not about racism, it is not about slavery, it’s about our heritage.”

But maybe not the heritage of descendants of slaves sold at auction in Brentsville, with no consideration for families—not unlike the way immigrant families fleeing violence and oppression are being treated today.  Should Stewart win, he promises to “oppose any form of amnesty” and to “ban sanctuary cities as boldly as he did in Prince William County.”

For students of history, this is a familiar tale. In the spring and summer of 1859, an enslaved woman named Harriet in Prince William County was fearful of the future. She and Dangerfield Newby, born a slave but by now a free man of color, had seven children and, as much as was possible under the system of chattel slavery, had established an enduring union.

But Dr. Lewis Jennings, her owner, planned to sell her and the children, with no guarantee they would be together.  Dangerfield tried to buy their freedom and had amassed $742 – more than $21,484 in today’s dollars. Jennings is said to have demanded $1,000—the 2018 equivalent of close to $28,000.

Harriet became increasingly fearful that her owner would soon sell them. In the spring and summer of 1859, she wrote three desperate letters to Dangerfield, imploring him to come save her and their children, addressing him as “Dear Husband” and signing them “Your Affectionate Wife.”   “You are my one bright hope,” she wrote repeatedly.

Dangerfield had been the oldest of eleven children of a white father, Henry Newby, and an enslaved mother, Elsey Pollard, who belonged to another man, John Fox.

Despite her enslaved status, Elsey and Henry lived as husband and wife, a union dating to 1818 to which she would later testify, in a “mother’s declaration” for a pension. It was Henry’s wish to free his family. He could accomplish this by purchasing them or, with their owner’s permission, taking them to a free state.

Fox was one of the area’s largest slaveholders, with an inventory of 193. But, he was also a benevolent master. Where Corey pledges “no sanctuary” for people he terms “criminal illegal aliens,” Fox found sanctuary for his slaves, in his will leaving them property locally and $10,000 to buy land and livestock and other essentials to establish themselves in Ohio.

There a state court had ruled in 1856 that an enslaved person who crossed the Ohio River “onto our shores” must be considered free.  Not just “sanctuary cities” existed in this antebellum world, but sanctuary states.  A year later, in its Dred Scott decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that escaped slaves had no rights, wherever they lived. Thus, under federal law, there would be no more “sanctuary states.”

Still, with Fox’s consent, the Newby family found a safe haven in Ohio in 1858. There, Dangerfield earned money as a blacksmith, while maintaining his family ties back in Virginia. When his efforts to purchase their freedom failed, he was a willing recruit for another, more audacious scheme he hoped would achieve the same end.

Dangerfield Newby met John Brown in Ashtabula County, Ohio and enlisted in his small abolitionist army, one of five African Americans who would go with him to Harpers Ferry in October 1859, to seize its federal arsenal in an ill-fated attempt to incite a slave rebellion. For Dangerfield, this was about family—his.

Dangerfield carried Harriet’s letters with him to the farmhouse where Brown and others gathered prior to the raid on Harpers Ferry. Newby was familiar with the provisional constitution that Brown said would govern his mountain republic of escaped slaves, and in particular an article that said, “The marriage relation shall be at all times respected and families kept together, as far as possible; and broken families encouraged to unite…”

Then, on a misty Sunday evening, they entered Harpers Ferry, took hostages and quickly gained control of the town and the arsenal. But their success was fleeting.

Dangerfield was the first raider to fall the following morning, taking a spike shot from a rifle in the neck. Mortally wounded, he become victim to angry townspeople who cut off his ears for souvenirs, then left him for the hogs. His body lay there for a day and a half.

The insurrection ended the following morning, when 90 U.S. marines under Col. Robert E. Lee stormed the arsenal’s fire engine house where Brown and his raiders had taken refuge. Brown was hanged on Dec. 2, 1859, and quickly achieved martyr status. The five African Americans with him, including Newby, were largely lost to history—along with Newby’s motivation to reunite his family that had been torn asunder in Brentsville, Virginia, in the county that has now given us Corey Stewart.


  1. Allen Hirsh on June 22, 2018 at 8:40 am

    Awesome, as usual. The connections to our present crop of domestic fascists has an eerily mystic dimension to it.

  2. CATHERINE BALDAU on June 22, 2018 at 8:42 am

    Wonderful piece, Gene.

  3. Donna Copeland Hill on June 22, 2018 at 11:15 am

    This blog post is extremely timely. I wish I could share it on Facebook. My daughter and son-in-law live in Prince William Co. VA – John Anthony Copeland is her ancestor.

    • Gene on June 23, 2018 at 11:20 pm

      Donna, thank you for your comment. You can share this post on Facebook or other social media. Click on the Share icon at the top.

  4. Elizabeth Blum on June 22, 2018 at 2:24 pm

    What happened to Harriet and the children?
    Also, has Corey Stewart also expressed anti-semitism at any time?
    This is very timely as the US has a history of allowing separation of children and parents: slavery and the BIA.
    What terrible history.
    Thanks Gene.

    • Gene Meyer on July 3, 2018 at 10:45 am

      Liz, good to hear from you. The answer to your question can be found within the pages of “Five for Freedom.” Best, Gene

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