Brown Colbert lived his first twenty years at Monticello, where he worked as an enslaved domestic servant and a nailmaker. In 1805, he asked to be sold to a free workman leaving Monticello, so that he and his wife would not be separated. Jefferson reluctantly agreed and the Colberts lived in slavery in Lexington, Virginia, until 1833, when they took a momentous step.
In exchange for freedom, they agreed to leave Virginia for a new colony in Africa. Colbert, his wife, Mary, and their two youngest sons boarded a ship for Liberia, leaving behind three grown children who could not be freed. Tragically, only one of the family, eight-year-old Burwell, survived the first weeks in the new land of freedom. He may have lived to see Liberia become Africa’s first independent republic in 1847.
Descendants of Colbert left behind in Virginia include a Union Army soldier, teachers and university professors, and a well-known lecturer and suffragist. The story of their ancestors’ courageous gamble for freedom was evidently not passed down orally but it survived in a family Bible.