NORFOLK, VIRGINIA: A JEWISH HISTORY IS NOW AVAILABLE!
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Jacob Abrahams~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Norfolk's First Jew
Ongoing Research by Irwin M. Berent
[Click on red links throughout text for photos and document images!]
Nearly a decade ago, after discovering a centuries-old weathered deed involving someone named Jacob Abrahams, historian Irwin Berent established Abrahams as the earliest known Jewish resident in Southeastern Virginia. No longer would international trader Moses Myers, one of America's first millionaires, who arrived in Norfolk in 1787 and whose 200-year-old Georgian residence still stands, be recognized as the area's first Jew.
But the weathered deed that Berent found is now revealing that Jacob Abrahams, the area's first known Jewish resident, may ironically turn out also to have been one of the Jewish community's most controversial and unseemly characters, allegedly involved in kidnapping a free African-American girl and selling her into slavery.
And while the story uncovered reflects negatively on a Jewish man and relates to the heinous subject of black servitude, the story ironically also affords a unique opportunity to bring together the study of Black history and Jewish history, which rarely intersect in early American history. For this is not the typical story of a white person owning slaves, but rather the extraordinarily rare -- indeed unheard-of -- story of an 18th century Jewish American allegedly engaged in kidnapping and selling an African-American who was considered free even in the barbaric days of slavery -- a story that is interesting and significant precisely because it is so rare.
In the deed, dated June 19, 1788, Jacob Abrahams gave to Mordecai Moses Mordecai [click here for portrait of Mordecai Mordecai], in exchange for a loan of 200 pounds and payment of all his debts, his property, in Norfolk County, Portsmouth (just across the river from Norfolk), which included "the lease of the house where I now live, a slaughter house, and all the tools and implements belonging thereto, three horses, two black and one roan, one cow, also my household furniture consisting of one mahogany desk, one mahogany dining table, one mahogany breakfast table, six mahogany chairs, nine windsor chairs, one clock and case, one walnut dining table, two beds, bedsteads, and furniture, and one large iron kettle set in a furnace." Historians had long regarded Moses Myers and his wife Eliza Judah as the area's first permanent Jewish residents, having arrived in Norfolk in 1787. But Berent suspected that if Abrahams was already disposing of a residence and a slaughterhouse that he was using in 1788, then Abrahams had already been in the area for awhile, perhaps making Abrahams, not Myers, the "first Jew" (albeit not the first permanent Jew, an attribute which Moses Myers would always hold -- indeed the Myers house is to this day a popular downtown Norfolk landmark).
Of course, Mordecai, the recipient of Abrahams' property, could also hold that distinction. Mordecai Moses Mordecai was a religious Jew originally from Telz, Lithuania, who was trained as a Shochet (ritual slaughterer -- hence the slaughterhouse). He had apparently come to Portsmouth from Philadelphia, where he engaged in the distilling business and where, in 1784 and 1785, he had run into trouble with the congregation there after having conducted a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew. A Jewish court of law (Beth Din) found the learned Jewish man guilty of performing an act contrary to Jewish law. And the deed was witnessed by Isaac Nunez Cardozo, a Jewish Revolutionary veteran from Pennsylvania who was the great-grandfather of future Supreme Court justice Benjamin Nathan Cardozo; and Deborah Mordecai, one of Mordecai's daughters, who would become Jacob Abrahams's wife.
The fact that all these Jews were in Portsmouth at all in the 18th century was in itself a significant discovery.
The earliest record found of Mordecai Mordecai in the area was in the 1787 census of Portsmouth. And researching Portsmouth and Norfolk court and tax records, Berent found other Jews living in the two towns in the late 1780s and early 1790s -- though none mentioned earlier than 1787.
Jacob Mordecai, who later founded a girls' academy in Warrenton, North Carolina (the son of Moses Mordecai, he was not related to Mordecai Mordecai.); Isaac Mordecai, a son of Mordecai Mordecai; Revolutionary veteran Philip Moses Russell, who was married to Mordecai Mordecai's daughter Esther; Michael Levy (father of Commodore Uriah P. Levy, who saved Thomas Jefferson's Monticello); Isaac Levy (probably Michael's brother), and Levy Israel as well as Moses Myers and Myers' business partner Samuel Myers, who was a son of the well-known silversmith Myer Myers and whose sister was married to Jacob Mordecai.
In Norfolk court records, there was Revolutionary veteran Philip Moses Russell. A British-born Jew -- like Abrahams and Levy -- Russell married another of Mordecai Mordecai's daughters, Esther; they had come from Baltimore to Norfolk in 1787, a year or so after Mordecai's arrival. Two of Russell's children were born in Norfolk, at least one of whom was circumcised by the itinerant mohel Myer Derkheim, who was in the Norfolk area around 1791 presumably for that purpose. Jacob Mordecai -- who later founded a girls' academy in Warrenton, North Carolina -- was also a brief Norfolk resident. (The son of Moses Mordecai, Jacob was not related to Mordecai Mordecai. In fact, Mordecai Mordecai, whose full name was Mordecai Moses Mordecai, would have called himself Moses Mordecai when he came to America, since he was named Moses and his father's name was Mordecai, but he chose to call himself Mordecai Moses Mordecai instead in order not to be confused with a Moses Mordecai who already resided in America -- and that Moses Mordecai was the father of Jacob Mordecai.)
And as already mentioned, Moses Myers settled in Norfolk along with his wife in 1787. And Myers' business partner, Samuel Myers, settled briefly in the area as well. Samuel, a son of the well-known silversmith Myer Myers, was a brother-in-law of Jacob Mordecai, who married Myer Myers' daughter Judith.
Portsmouth court records reveal Michael and Isaac Levy. Presumably brothers, the two were clock and watchmakers, and they acquired their retail merchandise license at the Norfolk County (Portsmouth) court in 1787; Michael was the father of Commodore Urian P. Levy, who would later purchase and restore Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. (Michael aquired his citizenship at the Norfolk court.) One court record shows Levy suing Isaac Mordecai, a son of Mordecai Mordecai. Another court record shows Michael Levy being sued by someone named Levy Israel, presumably Jewish.
(It is ironic that even with just a handful of Jews in the area, they managed to sue each other. In Portsmouth, not only was Michael Levy sued by Levy Israel, and not only did Michael Levy sue Isaac Mordecai, but Michael Levy also sued Jacob Abrahams. And as we'll see, even Mordecai Mordecai sued Abrahams. And in Norfolk, Michael Levy sued Mordecai Mordecai's son Jacob Mordecai, and Philip Moses Russell sued Jacob Abrahams as well.)
But the earliest record of any Jew in either Norfolk or Portsmouth was that of Abrahams: September 19, 1785, nearly a full two years before the earliest record of Moses Myers' presence in Norfolk, court records reveal that Abrahams was already in partnership with Christian Muschart as butchers in Portsmouth and suing a customer for unpaid purchases. (He would later partner with Henry Fridley, also a non-Jew.) Tax records show that Muschart and Abrahams had 4 slaves as of 1786: John, Sam, and Charles were above 21; "boy" was under 16. [click here for a copy of an actual receipt of meat purchased from Abrahams in 1791]
At this time, the town of Norfolk (technically it was a borough) was still recovering from the devastating fires that wiped out most of the city in 1776 during the Revolutionary War, which formally ended in 1781. (The owners of the few stores that remained after the Revolution often refused to sell; so those who wished to run their own stores had to rent expensive land on which to build, and since leases for the land usually ran for no more than seven years, they built mere shacks, knowing that in a short time they'd have to relinquish their right to it.) As of 1790, Norfolk had a population of about 600 households.
Portsmouth, a part of Norfolk County located just across the river from Norfolk, was smaller than Norfolk (it had about 300 households, as of 1785), but at that time many believed that Portsmouth had the greater potential for growth. The promise of post-Revolutionary growth brought just a few Jews to Portsmouth, including Abrahams and Mordecai. And by 1786, with the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Virginia generally was more inviting for non-Christians.
. . . .
Even after having given Mordecai Mordecai the house and slaughterhouse, Jacob Abrahams apparently still owed a sizable debt, and just a few months later, in August of 1788 Mordecai successfully sued Abrahams for a 500 pound debt, for which Abrahams was "committed in custody of the sherif...to remain in the common goal for debtors til he shall have satisfied this judgement." [click here for image of this document] (Amazing that Abrahams would marry Mordecai's daughter just a few years later!)
By May 1789, Abrahams now apparently out of jail, was renting a stall at the market square across the water in Norfolk, presumably selling his meat. In 1791, Mordecai Mordecai and Jacob Mordecai, along with Jacob Abrahams, all appeared together as Special bond for Mordecai Mordecai's son, Isaac, who was having problems of indebtedness. This probably suggests that Jacob Abrahams' fortunes were looking up -- or at least that Abrahams had mended relations with Mordecai Mordecai.
. . . .
In the latter part of 1792, a letter arrived in the hands of Col. Champion Travis of Williamsburg. [click here for image of this letter] It was written on August 21, 1792 by David Miller, who had been traveling through Fayetteville, North Carolina, and had come across a young African-American woman in her 20s whom it turned out he had known as a little girl. She was Sally Valentine, and he had known her as a Free Negro living in Norfolk. In fact, her mother, Amy Valentine, who was also a Free Negro, had lived with his mother, presumably as a house servant, for about 3 years. But Amy's daughter Sally was now not free at all but rather a slave being treated "in the most barbarous manner." And apparently the girl also told Miller that it was "Jacob Abraham, a Butcher, of Norfolk" along with one James Bishop who had "stolen" her from Norfolk about 8 years earlier. In fact, Miller even states -- presumably based on what Sally told him -- that the two culprits had brought "some other young negroes at the same time, which in all probability are either free or stolen from their masters," as well. Miller said that he had "applied to a magistrate to get her liberated by my testimony and the testimony of a lady in this place, who has known the girl ever since her birth, but the magistrate informed me he could do nothing before Court" comes back in session in October (in North Carolina, the local courts were the only authority that could free a slave; North Carolina was the only Southern state in which emancipation was not a slaveholder's prerogative). Miller therefore requested that Col. Travis find Sally's mother and "send her to Wilmington by water -- from whence she can easily get to this place; and it will be necessary she should bring credentials of her freedom, and by which means she may recover her child." He also urged him to contact either Jon Nevison or Dr. Taylor (both prominent citizens in Norfolk who would know the child's mother -- and perhaps the child) as a means of "bringing the villains to Justice."
The letter ultimately reached Thomas Newton, Jr., the mayor of Norfolk. (Newton has the distinction of having been the first Norfolk slaveowner to free one of his slaves under a 1782 Virginia statute that for the first time permitted such manumission...although he didn't do it until 1791!) In response Newton located the mother and sent her to Fayetteville. And on December 13, he wrote to the governor of Virginia (and enclosed a copy of the original Miller letter), asking that he write to the governor of North Carolina "that he would have justice done the poor negro." (The Virginia governor was Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, who eulogized George Washington as "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.") (It is because of that fortuitous action that I found these letters -- since all the correspondence received by the early Virginia governors is published in an 8-volume work called the Calendar of State Papers.) We may never know, however, whether the Virginia governor wrote to the North Carolina governor; interfering in other states' affairs was a sensitive matter. (The previous Virginia governor, Beverly Randolph, had refused to extradite three men indicted for the kidnapping of one John Davis, a free black resident of Washington County, Pennsylvania, who was sold into slavery in Virginia. In fact, ironically, it was precisely that inaction that ultimately led to the establishment of the Fugitive Slave Act, which made it easier for fugitive slaves to be extradited back to their masters and made it more dangerous for free blacks, who could now be legally sold into slavery if they lacked proper papers to prove that they were free. Coincidentally, the Fugitive Slave Act became law just two months after Newton wrote his letter to Governor Lee.) Newton writes:
"Your feelings I am certain must be hurt by the villainy of the persons who perpetrated the measure. I have done all that lay in my power by sending the mother on to claim her child, but I had no acquaintance I could rely on near the place she is at, and considering it matter of consequence, conceived if you wou'd be so good as to write to the Gov'r of North Carolina, that he would have Justice done the poor negro.... You will pardon my freedom in writing to you on this occasion, but I felt so much for the parent I could not refrain."
Newton also told the governor that "Mr. Jacob Abrams, the person who sold her, lives in Richmond, and I hope may be made an example of to deter others from proceeding in the like manner." But Abrahams doesn't appear in the Personal Property Tax rolls of Richmond until 1794, and even throughout the last months of 1793 Jacob Abrahams initiates court cases in Norfolk and Portsmouth. (In one case, records show an actual receipt possessed by one of his customers showing beef purchases made throughout the period of January 1791 to Oct. 1792.) Perhaps by the time Newton wrote to the governor, Abrahams was making Richmond his home while still going to Norfolk and Portsmouth when necessary. One wonders, though, whether news of the accusations against Abrahams would have made it difficult for him to have stayed in Norfolk anyway.
Richmond, in fact, was a logical place. The 1790 census showed 29 Jewish households there. In fact, by the early 1790s, nearly all the Jews previously in the Norfolk and Portsmouth area had settled there, at least briefly -- except for Moses Myers, who remained in Norfolk (the Myers' home is to this day a prominent historic site). All of the Mordecais apparently settled there, at least temporarily (Isaac Mordecai later settled in Baltimore; Mordecai ultimately returned from Richmond to Philadelphia); Philip Russell also settled there (1794), as did Isaac Levy (1793); Michael Levy went to Philadelphia. Members of the Cardozo family had also settled there (though Isaac Cardozo settled in Philadelphia). The itinerant mohel Derkheim, who circumcised at least one of Russell's children born in Norfolk, had also sojourned there. And in 1789, Moses Myers' partner Samuel Myers had gone to Petersburg, just a few miles north of Richmond.
We'll probably never be able to prove whether Jacob Abrahams did what he is alleged to have done. No record has ever been found of a court trial. (By a Virginia statute of 1788, kidnapping a free negro was even punishable by death; that penalty was not reduced until 1819. The penalty of death was a decided increase over the penalty of 70 pounds specified for selling a non-slave in an earlier 1765 statute.) One would suppose that if the authorities thought that Jacob Abrahams was guilty of such a crime that could relatively easily have held him since he was residing right in the capital city.
Could it have happened?
[I have just added the following astonishing information, in bold, about a Guilford County courthouse document:]
The most damning evidence was just recently discovered with a simple Internet search that led to the following 1791 (p.153) item of the Guilford County (Greensboro), North Carolina, court records:
"Mathew Brown provd a Bill of Sale from Jacob Abrahams to Charles Bruce for on[e] Negroe Girl slave Named Sally and on motion ordered to be Recorded___"
It is clear that a free negro woman named Amy Valentine -- presumably the mother of Sally -- did live in Norfolk; one Amy Valentine is listed in the 1769 Norfolk Borough tax records as living in the town's eastern district (east of Church Street) Only free negro women over 16 years of age were required to pay such taxes; white females would not have been listed, and female slaves would have been listed clearly as slaves with their masters.
(Actually, white females were mentioned on the lists, but not for paying their own taxes. Rather, they were listed only for paying the taxes of their slaves. For instance, a typical listing might read "Rebecca Tucker for negroes Old Tom, Young Tom, Jacob, Old Nanny, Sukey & Nancy.")
(By 1771, a Virginia statute went into effect that exempted free negro women from paying the taxes, which may explain why Amy Valentine doesn't appear on any tax lists after that time. The statute, entitled "An act for exempting free negro, mulatto, and Indian women, from the payment of levies," stated that the taxation was "very burthensome to such negroes, mulattoes, and Indians" and was "derogatory of the rights of free-born subjects.")
(There were only a handful of free negroes in Norfolk at this time. In Norfolk's eastern district, as of 1767, there were only 4 positively identifiable free negroes: Affiar Anderson, Talbot Thompson, Fill and Hannah Williams, and John Whitehaven. And even by 1790, the Norfolk census indicates that there were just 61 free negroes -- out of a slave population of 1300.)
And if Amy Valentine had a daughter, the daughter would also be free. And indeed a copy of Sally Valentine's "free papers" that she acquired in 1794 from the Clerk's office of the Norfolk Borough (which she, like all free negroes, was required by law to carry) describes her as "Sarah Valentine, a Black Woman, five feet two inches high aged thirty years or thereabouts (Born free)." [click here for Sarah Valentine's free papers document] And clearly she was sold into slavery. For when the next session of the Fayetteville court commenced in October, a motion on behalf of Sally Valentine was presented claiming her right to freedom, and noting that she had been "Sold to James McCracking by Nathaniel Folsom."
And on the very next day (Oct.12), the court record states:
"Sally Valentine a negro woman in the service of James McCracking having made application to this Court for the purpose of obtaining her freedom under an act of Assembly passed in the year 1741 entitled an act concerning Servants & Slaves. [This act gave the North Carolina county courts exclusive authority to manumit slaves and only "for meritorious Service," which the courts alone determined.] The Court having examined the testimony in favor of the woman and deliberately weighed all circumstances of the Case and having also heard the Said Sally Valentine and James McCracking by their Counsel are of the Opinion that the Said Sally Valentine is a free woman and do Order accordingly that she be forthwith discharged from the Service of the said McCracking and set at full and entire liberty."
The fact that Sally secured her free papers in Norfolk in 1794 establishes that she had indeed returned to Norfolk within less than two years of her successful court appearance. (She would later appear on the free negro rolls of Alexandria County, District of Columbia, in 1806.) (It is interesting to note that a Virginia Statute passed in 1793 forbade free negroes from migrating into the Commonwealth. Perhaps Sally returned before this act went into force, or she was made an exception of. Another statute passed that same year required that Free negroes be "registered and numbered in a book to be kept by the town clerk, which shall specify age, name, color, status and by whom, and in what court emancipated." Annually the copy of the registration was delivered to the person for twenty-five cents. And every three years the free negro was to obtain a new certificate.)
From the court's description of her as having been sold to James McCracking by Nathaniel Folsom, we may surmise that Nathaniel Folsom had originally purchased Sally either from her kidnappers or from someone who probably had originally purchased her from her kidnappers. (It is, however, possible that she had been sold several times. For instance, in a July 27, 1786 case in the Cumberland County courthouse -- this is the county in which Fayetteville is located -- in which Caleb Lockalier sued for his freedom, it is recorded that Caleb's master, Thomas Hadley, "appeared and produced an indenture originally binding said boy to Stephen Kade, assigned by him to Francis Kennaday, by him to James Oneal and by him to said Thomas Hadley." The court ruled Caleb "to be unlawfully restrained, he to be discharged and delivered to his mother.") And then Folsom had sold her to James McCracking, her last owner. If the kidnapping took place "about 8 years ago," as the David Miller letter had indicated, then Sally was probably sold initially around 1784. In the Fayetteville court records, there is an entry dated January 27, 1787, which states simply "Nathaniel Folsom to James McCracking bill of sale." It is the only such sale of record between these two, and it was common practice for the sale of a slave to be recorded as a "bill of sale." If this was a record of the sale of Sally, then perhaps Nathaniel Folsom had owned her between 1784 and 1787; and then McCracking owned her between 1787 and her release in 1792.
No other records of James McCracking have been found. Nathaniel Folsom was appointed a deputy sheriff of Fayetteville in 1785, and he is recorded in the 1790 census as owning 9 slaves. We also know that Nathaniel's father Ebenezer, who was a man of rather substantial means, served in the Revolutionary War and later served as a state senator. In 1774, he was granted a license to keep a tavern at his house in Fayetteville.
If the kidnapping did occur in 1784, would this fit with what is known about Abrahams? We know that 1784 is just one year before Abrahams is positively identified as being in business as a butcher with Muschart. If Abrahams was indeed involved in this heinous act, we can surmise that his occupation as a butcher may have placed him in frequent contact with persons who traded deep in the back country of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina -- and perhaps even as far south as Fayetteville. Within the court records of one of the suits in which Abrahams was a party being sued, there is a letter of credit from William Plume written to Watson Stott, a storeowner in Suffolk, the backcountry of southeastern Virginia. In it, Plume points out that "Abrahams & Fridley [another of Abrahams' partners] of Portsmouth, Butchers" have "numerous transactions with the gentlemen of Carolina who drive Bears into this quarter." Perhaps some involved themselves in more than just the driving of bears.
And Jacob Abrahams' background may also be consistent with an individual who conceivably could have done such a thing. He appears to have arrived in Anne Arundel, Maryland, April 1771, on board the Thornton. He came as a convict -- yes, a convict -- from London. The London of that time was packed with 1000s of Jews most of whose families had come from Germany, Lithuania, and Poland since the Revolution of 1688. Many of these Ashkenazic Jews (Jews who follow the German ritual of Judaism) were poor, reduced to stealing, fencing stolen goods or relying on the charity distributed by the more established Sephardic (Spanish-ritual) Jews. Quite possibly, Jacob was one of these poor. The Old Bailey records show that on January 19, 1771, Jacob was indicted for stealing a linen handkerchief, value 2 shillings, the property of Richard Gwin, on the previous day (swift justice indeed), and sentenced to be transported to the colonies along with 29 others who were sentenced that same day. (In addition to the transportees sentenced that day, 2 criminals were branded, 2 whipped, 3 sentenced to death, and 3 instructed to be hung the following Wednesday. Unfortunately for the historian, Jacob appears to have plead guilty. Had he instead attempted to offer a defense, a transcript of his trial would have been dutifully recorded in the Old Bailey records.) Were he to return at any time to London, he would be executed.
One thing is certain: Abrahams must have been aware of the accusations made against him. For amazingly, though there was no mention of Jacob Abrahams in the Fayettevile court record freeing Valentine, he was mentioned in connection with another transaction on the very same day (and he does not appear on any other day in the court records for that session). In fact, the transaction is recorded just a few lines below that of the Valentine matter: "Bill of sale. Jacob Abraham to Duncan Smith proved by Malion Smith." Did he come down to Fayetteville as a witness? Was he forced to come down? Did he come with Sally's mother Amy? Was Abrahams innocent and did he come to Fayetteville in order to clear his name? Or less likely, did he somehow come secretly just to see what was going on? Unfortunately, as intrigueing as these questions are, they may be unanswerable. And as bizarre and audacious as the possibility might seem, one cannot help but wonder whether the sale that Abrahams made to Duncan Smith might actually have been that of another African-American?
. . . .
We do, however, know what became of Jacob Abrahams. Abrahams first appears in the 1794 Richmond tax records, listed as having a slave above 16 years of age, and 1 horse or mule. At about this time, he married Deborah Mordecai, who would have been 18 (her tombstone in Richmond's Hebrew Cemetery indicates that she was born June 20, 1776), and his first child, Simon, was born in 1795. In late 1795, Abrahams is granted a license to keep "an ordinary at the house commonly called 'The Bird in the Hand.'" (This tavern, one of the first hotels in Richmond, was owned by German-born Jews Isaiah Isaacs and Jacob I. Cohen. Isaiah Isaacs is considered Richmond's first Jew, appearing as early as 1769; Jacob Cohen was married to Jacob Mordecai's widowed mother. [click here for painting of Jacob I. Cohen])
(It is interesting to note that while we may never know whether Jacob Abrahams, the first identifiable Jew in southeastern Virginia, committed the act or acts he is alleged to have committed, and we do not even know whether he ever freed his own slaves, at least in this respect, he is the opposite of the first identifiable Jewish resident of Richmond, Isaiah Isaacs. For when Isaacs wrote his own will in 1803, he directed that his four remaining house slaves and their families be freed, penning these remarkable words: "Being of the opinion that all men are by Nature equally free and being possessed of some of those beings who are unfortunate doomed to slavery, as to them, I must enjoin upon my executor a strict observance of the following clause in my will. My slaves...shall enjoy all the privileges and immunities of free people." Apparently, the Norfolk-area's first Jew, Jacob Abrahams, did not understand what Richmond's first Jew understood.)
By 1796, Abrahams had 5 slaves (actually we assume they were slaves -- they are listed only as "blacks") and 4 horses. In the same year, Abrahams was cited as a nuisance for "keeping a disorderly house and entertaining negroes at night" (it was probably illegal for slaves to be away from their homes after nightfall -- at least without special permission from their masters). Also in 1796, Jacob successfully sued a fellow Jew, Solomon Marks, a hatter, for slander; one can only wonder whether Marks' claim may have had anything to do with rumors that Jacob Abrahams had kidnapped free negroes (Mordecai Mordecai, Isaac Mordecai, Benjamin Myers, and Harmon Beadles were among Abrahams' witnesses). (About a year later, Doran Morris, who some months before had been apprenticed to Solomon Marks, complained that his master had mistreated him, and the Court ordered that he be apprenticed to some other hatter.) By the century's end in 1799, Jacob possessed 9 slaves, 8 horses or mules, and several carriages. In 1802, Abrahams received a license to manufacture tobacco, a highly labor-intensive activity that would doubtless have required several slaves. Jacob likely did fairly well for himself, as we know that he possessed at least a 3-story "woodhouse" (on the "west side of 22nd street, adjoining the lot on which the Henrico [County] Jail and Clerk's Office stand," according to an 1826 deed), which he passed down to his son Simon.
Presumably Jacob died around 1825, the year in which the Richmond court placed his daughter Zipporah Abrahams ("a poor orphan of Jacob Abrahams, deceased, aged 16 years the 25th of March last") in the custody of Winifred and Nathan Charter (presumably not Jewish) to remain with them -- presumably as some sort of servant -- until the age of eighteen. (There is in this a bit of irony, as Zipporah may have been about the same age as Sally Valentine when she too was removed from her usual surroundings and forced to reside elsewhere, albeit surely under much more violent circumstances than those of Zipporah. In some small way, if Abrahams was guilty of selling African-Americans into slavery, one might see this as payback -- albeit posthumous -- delivered upon one of his offspring.) Zipporah quickly married just a few months after she turned 18 in 1827. No tombstone of Jacob has been found. Jacob's wife Deborah died February 14, 1852.
Jacob and Deborah had at least three children. Click here for family tree. Simon was born in 1795 and died in 1850. He never married. Simon was no stranger to slaves. Probably his father passed down his own slave (or slaves), and most likely Simon purchased others as well. In 1825, Simon filed an unusual deed in the Henrico County court, involving 6 of his slaves. In effect, he sold the six -- which were five brothers and sisters along with their mother -- to the father, named Isaac Vines, in exchange for the father's promise to build a fence around the house where Simon lived and to provide Simon with "good and sufficient food, clothing, washing and lodging" and to pay off all of Simon's debts. Perhaps that would have seemed a fair deal for a way for a father to get his children and wife out of slavery, but the deed futher stipulated that the deal would apply only for two years, after which the children and wife were to revert back to Simon. (This, by the way, is further evidence that the reason some free negroes owned their own slaves was not to use them as slaves in the sense that white owners would use slaves but was instead for the purpose of giving some amount of freedom to their very children and spouses. And indeed, as is evidenced here, even the ownership of the slaves did not guarantee their freedom but presumably only offered a temporary respite from "real" enslavement.) In 1826, Simon willed the "woodhouse" property that his father Jacob had passed down to him to one of his slaves, Jane, who he also declared would be emancipated upon his death. By 1840, Simon owned 15 slaves -- 6 males and 9 females (4 were under 10 years old; 4 were over 55).
Jacob and Deborah Abrahams' second child, Zipporah, was born 1809. Zipporah most likely takes her name from her grandmother, Zipporah De Lyon Mordecai. Zipporah's first husband, John P. Smith, died in 1831; she then married Henry W. Morris in 1834. It is not known whether Morris was Jewish or whether she had any children by either marriage.
Jacob and Deborah's third child, Wilcher, was born about 1810. Wilcher is an unusual first name for a son of two Colonial Jews. Normally the name Wilcher originates from Wiltshire, England; so perhaps it indicates where Jacob's family came from. (It did not likely have any association with Deborah's family, since Deborah's father was from Lithuania, her mother was born in America, and her mother's parents came from Portugal.)
(Rabbi Malcolm Stern's original book of family trees of early Jewish Americans, Americans of Jewish Descent, identifies the wrong persons as Abrahams' sons, but he wisely placed question marks beside these names, although the later editions of his work -- called First American Jewish Families -- lacked the question marks.)
Wilcher, who changed his last name from Abrahams to Abrams, married Martha Whitlow, a non-Jew, in 1834?, and died in 1889. He named his children Deborah, Martha, Mordecai, Esther, Sarah, Wilcher, Cellela, Samuel, and Jacob. All his children who lived to adulthood appear to have married non-Jews as well and to have remained in or near Richmond (Cellela married William J. Gentry; Samuel first married Emma Granger and then Cora Bryant; Jacob married Rosa Faircloth) Through census records and cemetery records, Berent was able to trace several of Wilcher Abrams' descendants well into the 20th century, including Pleasant Gentry, Cellela Gentry, Charles Gentry, William J. Gentry III, Landon Tucker, Jr., and Waverly Tucker. Click here for family tree. He has also identified living descendants of Wilcher Abrams' granddaughter Annie, who married British-born Albin Netherwood in Richmond. Those who have been located have no knowledge of Jacob Abrahams. A grandson of Annie Abrams, William Netherwood of Colonial Heights, Virginia, is aware that an ancestor of theirs was Jewish and that he came from England. One Abrams granddaughter, Anita Thompson of Bryson City, North Carolina, even recalls a story of a Jewish ancestor having disowned a daughter or son for marrying a non-Jew and symbolically sitting shiva for the person, who was figuratively dead in the parents' eyes.
While the memory of the kidnapping of Sally Valentine by, presumably, Jacob Abrahams has long vanished from Abrahams's ancestors, we are indeed fortunate to be able to peek into this small but intriguing slice of history that can now be shared by Jews and African-Americans alike. And in the final analysis, even if the allegations against Jacob Abrahams turn out to have been unfounded, the story will continue to stir interest, as who-done-it and why-did-they-do-it questions are precisely what make history fascinating.
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JewishHistoryUSA is pleased to announce its publication of Norfolk, Virginia: A Jewish History of the 20th Century, a 249-page history of Jewish community of Norfolk, Virginia, focusing especially on the first half of the 20th century. Written by the historian/author Irwin M. Berent, this is the only comprehensive history of Jewish Norfolk. It is filled with detailed text (see Table of Contents), numerous photos (see Index of Photographs), and an index of more than 2000 names (see Index of Proper Names).
Click here for ordering information.