by Nicole Trifone
In the weeks before his death in 1784, Ryland Randolph put his affairs in order.
Ryland was a member of the prominent Randolph family — he was first cousin to Revolutionary leader Peyton Randolph and second cousin to Thomas Jefferson — and the owner of a vast estate in Turkey Island, located in the Virginia county of Henrico. His will left explicit instructions. His highest priority, above everything else, was to free an enslaved woman named Aggy and her two children.
His will also established a trust fund for Aggy in Great Britain, where Ryland Randolph wanted the children, 3-year-old Sylvia Anderson and 1-year-old Alexander Philip, to be educated.
Though manumitting enslaved people through a will was not unusual in the 1780s, Ryland’s efforts to set up a new life in a new land for a specific enslaved family were extraordinary.
For Colonial Williamsburg Foundation historians, the arrangements made in the will indicate the relationship between Ryland Randolph and Aggy had been significant, likely intimate, and that Sylvia and Alexander were probably their children.
But Ryland’s dying wishes for his family were thwarted by his eldest brother, Richard, who contested the will and kept Aggy and the children in bondage.
Aggy of Turkey Island had to earn freedom for her family on her own. Her story sheds light on interracial relationships, hierarchy among the enslaved and the legal system in the late 18th century. As a new Nation Builder, interpreter Mary Hardy Carter portrays Aggy in the Historic Area.
“Aggy’s story is important to be told because it’s important that we examine not just African American history and Anglo-American history as if they’re separate,” said Carter, who has worked for the Foundation for 10 years. “It’s important that we remember they are and always have been intertwined.”
Aggy would have spent most of her time within the halls of the Turkey Island mansion, dubbed the “Bird Cage” by those who would sail along the James River and observe birds flitting in and out of the Palladian-style cupola. Carter found inspiration in the image of Aggy being confined to the Bird Cage, allowed to fly only within the borders of Turkey Island and the limits of societal expectations.
“You can take a bird from nature, you can put it in a cage, you can admire it, feed it, teach it how to sing, but you should never forget that God created it to fly,” Carter said. “I want guests to be reminded of that when they hear Aggy’s story.”
The evolution of Ryland and Aggy’s relationship beyond master and slave forever blurred Aggy’s role in society. She remained enslaved but gained an elevated position within the household. If she traveled with Ryland, others would have treated her as an enslaved woman. Her relationship with Ryland would have created a distance between her and the other enslaved people without closing the gap between her and Ryland’s white contemporaries.
As Aggy, Carter often visits the Peyton Randolph House in the Historic Area to demonstrate the point. If Ryland took Aggy with him on a visit to the Randolph house in Williamsburg, she would have stayed in and around the slave quarters. She may not have been put to work, but she would not have been allowed in the house as a guest.
Aggy had to fight for her own freedom after Ryland’s failed effort to manumit her and the children through his will. Three years after Richard Randolph refused to carry out Ryland’s wishes — his responsibility after the three executors Ryland named refused to take on the role — she fought back. She sued the Randolphs to gain freedom for her family and she won. What became of the inheritance Ryland intended for her and the children is not clear.
The paper trail for Aggy, Sylvia and Alexander largely ends with the settlement of the lawsuit in 1790, though there is documentary evidence that Aggy still lived in Virginia in 1801.
But Carter’s research continues. She studies the records of an estate sale Richard Randolph held months after Ryland’s death, researches Ryland’s life in England as a boy and follows any lead regarding how life unfolded for Sylvia and Alexander.
Carter’s introduction to Aggy came about five years ago. In a training session, a colleague described the relationship between Ryland and Aggy as a loving one. The complexity of a relationship between a white man and an enslaved black woman within norms of the day — a male master and his female property — struck her as a compelling story, and one she wanted to tell in Williamsburg.
Her deep commitment to Aggy’s story is personal. Carter, whose mother is white and father is black, has been answering questions about interracial relationships since childhood. When she began portraying enslaved women in the Historic Area, her skin tone often prompted questions about the parentage of characters she portrayed.
“It always comes up. Always,” Carter said. “At times I worried my skin color was an obstacle, a hurdle the audience had to overcome. Then a mentor told me, ‘No, it’s a strength. You make people talk about it.’ I realized it’s a conversation, and an important one, that people want to have. Aggy helps us have it.”
The addition of Aggy of Turkey Island to Colonial Williamsburg’s Nation Builders program is generously funded by anonymous donors in honor of Ted Maris-Wolf.
Aggy of Turkey Island, a new Nation Builder, is portrayed by interpreter Mary Hardy Carter. (Tom Green/The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
Ryland Randolph’s 1784 will stated that Aggy and her two children should be granted freedom upon his death. It established a trust for Aggy in England, using 3,000 pounds from his estate.
However, Ryland’s brother Richard asserted that the estate had been “wasted and embezzled” — that the value of the estate would not cover Ryland’s debts — and that Ryland had been tricked into signing the will, voiding its contents.
In the months after Ryland’s death, Richard hosted an estate sale of his brother’s property, including the public sale of Aggy and her children, Sylvia Anderson and Alexander Phillip. Richard purchased the family and kept them in bondage until his death in 1786, when he bequeathed them to his sons and allowed for the eventual emancipation of Sylvia and Alexander as long as they never made claim to any of Ryland’s estate.
In 1788, Aggy sued the Randolphs. Her Turkey Island neighbor Robert Pleasants represented her in court. Her court filing claimed the actions of the executor had been “not only inconsistent with the principles of natural justice, repugnant to legal right, and in more than a common degree, oppressive and injurious towards [Aggy] and her children; but are likewise a direct violation of the first principles of humanity.” The filing also put the burden on the Randolphs to prove that Ryland’s debts could not be covered and that Richard had the legal right to keep Aggy, Sylvia and Alexander in bondage.
When the Randolphs never attempted to provide that proof, Aggy won a legal victory and freedom, which is all she sought. In that lawsuit, she did not attempt to claim the inheritance.
Aggy of Turkey Island, as portrayed by Mary Hardy Carter, debuted public performances during Black History Month. Throughout the 2018 season, she will tell her story in the Historic Area and in the Hennage Auditorium in programs such as An American Story, Visit a Nation Builder, and Walk Through History with a Nation Builder.
Aggy can also be found at the Peyton Randolph House and the Raleigh Tavern.
For a full schedule, visit the Calendar.
Guests can track Aggy’s location on their smartphones by downloading the Colonial Williamsburg Explorer App.