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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: September 2020

4 - Elizabeth Key, Seventeenth-Century Virginia (US)

from Part I - Claiming Emancipation during the Rise of New World Slavery


Identity in seventeenth century colonial Virginia was in a liminal state. Enter Elizabeth Key, an African-Anglo woman living in the colony during the middle of the seventeenth century. Key sued for her freedom when the overseers of her late master’s estate classified her in the estate inventory as a negro rather than a servant. To the overseers the term negro implied a permanently or perpetually unfree person, an inheritable condition. In contrast, the term servant implied someone born free who voluntarily relinquished her freedom for a definite period.  Thus, Key’s classification raised serious questions about her legal status and the status of at least one of her two children. Hers is one of the earliest freedom suits in the English colonies filed by a person with some African ancestry. Her representative argued that because her father was an English subject, she could not be enslaved for life. A negative consequence of her successful lawsuit was a law consigning the children of enslaved women to permanent servitude. In effect, Key’s attempt to emancipate herself from slavery and its concomitant forms of oppression resulted in larger changes to the racial status quo.