Author ORCID Identifier

Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts



First Advisor

Dr. Ryan K. Smith

Second Advisor

Dr. Nicole Myers Turner

Third Advisor

Dr. Michael L. Blakey


This thesis examines the life of Robert Cowley, a formerly enslaved man living free during slavery in eighteenth-century Richmond, Virginia. The first chapter examines Cowley’s enslaved life through the records of others. The data collectors and historians of early America did not intend to capture the truth of Black people’s American experiences, except as defined their enslavement--people in service to the wealth-building capacity of the nation. Yet the lives of Black people who lived in proximity to prominent whites can be glimpsed in a variety of records and writings from account books to deeds, from private letters to newspaper advertisements. Cowley did not begin to appear in the archival record with any regularity until after he became free in 1785. Relatively rich, if impersonal, the information in the documents gives the reader little sense of Cowley’s motivations and decision-making processes. Having to cast a wider net to retrieve what might exist revealed the racism inherent in the archives as much as it helped convey the structural conditions in which a free Black person like Cowley would have to live. This section is the biography of Cowley’s free life from manumission to the moment when he could have lost it all--implication in Gabriel’s Rebellion. The third section situates his life within those broader dynamics of race, slavery, and the meaning of freedom for free Black people in the post-Revolutionary era, and the archival footprint that reveals a continuation of the cultural violence of white supremacy to the present. Ideas of whiteness and Blackness are examined in relation to American identity and the law and race relations between free Blacks and whites after the American Revolution. Cowley was fortunate in many ways, but was nonetheless forced to navigate a Black life in a white nation founded on slavery, and he wrestled continuously with the realities of coexistence in an unwelcoming world.


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