Colbert (Hemings)

Betty Brown, the second daughter of Elizabeth Hemings, had eight children, six of whom used the surname Colbert; their father has not been identified. Her son Burwell Colbert  was Jefferson’s valued enslaved manservant in his retirement years as well as Monticello butler; he was also a painter and glazier. The descendants of his daughter Nancy Colbert Scott preserve an oral history of their ancestors that presents a striking portrait of the evils of slavery.

Betty Brown’s daughter Melinda Colbert married John Freeman, Jefferson’s dining-room servant at the President’s House; they raised a family in freedom in Washington, DC, and were active in antislavery activities there. Two of their grandsons distinguished themselves in the Union army in the Civil War. Melinda’s brother Robert Colbert was sold by Jefferson in 1820 and subsequently ran away; he was described in an advertisement as being “shrewd and intelligent” and having “somewhat” the appearance of an Indian. His fate is not known.

Another of Betty Brown’s sons, Brown Colbert, was an enslaved nailmaker at Monticello.  To prevent separation from his wife, he asked Jefferson to sell him in 1805.  With his wife and family, he lived in slavery in Lexington, Virginia, but was able to remain in contact with his mother and siblings at Monticello and in Washington. Surviving records indicate that this family made extraordinary efforts to maintain family bonds despite separation and to support their family members, both free and enslaved. While Brown Colbert’s bid for freedom in 1833 ended in tragedy on the west coast of Africa, his children who remained in Virginia laid the groundwork for the success of their descendants, who were educators, civic leaders, and soldiers in the Civil War.

Nannie Cox Jackson
Burwell Colbert’s receipt for purchases at 1827 Monticello sale (University of Virginia Library)
Brown Colbert’s great-granddaughter Coralie Franklin Cook was a prominent lecturer and suffragist (West Virginia Archives)


“Disfranchisement Because Of Sex … Handicaps Progress”

I wonder if anybody in all this great world ever thought to consider man’s rights as an individual, by his…
“Disfranchisement Because Of Sex … Handicaps Progress”

Coralie Cook publishes “Votes for Mothers” in the NAACP magazine The Crisis in 1915.

“I wonder if anybody in all this great world ever thought to consider man’s rights as an individual, by his status as a father? yet you ask me to say something about ‘Votes for Mothers,’ as if mothers were a separate and peculiar people.  After all, I think you are not so far wrong.  Mothers are different, or ought to be different, from other folk.  The woman who smilingly goes out, willing to meet the Death Angel, that a child may be born, comes back from that journey, not only the mother of her own adored babe, but a near-mother to all other children.  As she serves that little one, there grows within her a passion to serve humanity; not race, not class, not sex, but God’s creatures as he has sent them to earth.

It is not strange that enlightened womanhood has so far broken its chains as to be able to know that to perform such service, woman should help both to make and to administer the laws under which she lives, should feel responsible for the conduct of educational systems, charitable and correctional institutions, public sanitation and municipal ordinances in general.  Who should be more competent to control the presence of bar rooms and ‘red-light districts’ than mothers whose sons they are meant to lure to degradation and death?  Who knows better than the girl’s mother at what age the girl may legally barter her own body?  Surely not the men who have put upon our statute books, 16, 14, 12, aye be it to their eternal shame, even 10 and 8 years, as ‘the age of consent!’

If men could choose their own mothers, would they choose free women or bondwomen?  Disfranchisement because of sex is curiously like disfranchisement because of color.  It cripples the individual, it handicaps progress, it sets a limitation upon mental and spiritual development.  I grow in breadth, in vision, in the power to do, just in proportion as I use the capacities with which Nature, the All-Mother, has endowed me.  I transmit to the child who is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh and thought of my thought; somewhat of my own power or weakness.  Is not the voice which is crying out for ‘Votes for Mothers’ the Spirit of the Age crying out for the Rights of Children?”  (The Crisis, 10, August 1915)