A few miles west of US Route 60 in Williamsburg, off of Centerville Road in James City County, is a quiet place called Freedom Park featuring a recreation of one of the first free black settlements in the country.
Lost amidst the relative popularity of nearby Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens, Freedom Park contains beautifully constructed models of simple, early 19th-century houses that call to mind one of the most important events in American history: the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans.
Except these African Americans were not freed in 1865, with the abolition of slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment. They were freed in 1804 according to the will of William Ludwell Lee and were allowed to live on Lee’s land rent-free for 10 years. In the last twenty years of the 1700s following the Revolutionary War, the freed black population of Virginia grew from approximately 2,000 to 20,000 people, acts that were generally inspired by the tenets of the Declaration of Independence. In the wake of Gabriel’s Rebellion in 1800, the Virginia General Assembly required that manumitted slaves leave the state, making settlements such as the one in Freedom Park an increasing rarity.
Lee was the grandson of Philip Ludwell III, a colonial Virginia planter, statesman, and friend to notables such as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. Lee’s great-great-grandfather, Philip Ludwell I, inherited Green Spring Plantation in the late 1600s.
Freedom Park and Green Spring Plantation
Why is Freedom Park hidden off a quiet road in James City County? Because the original homes were built on the northern part of Green Spring Plantation (known as the Hot Water Tract), which William Ludwell Lee inherited from his forebears. Green Spring lies approximately five miles west of Colonial Williamsburg.
Green Spring was one of the most influential houses and plantations in the colonial era, built originally by legendary Royal Governor William Berkeley before it was inherited by the Ludwell family. The location of Green Spring plantation makes sense because it lies due north of Jamestown, the colonial capital during Governor Berkeley’s tenure in the 1600s. Berkeley’s widow, Frances Culpeper Stephens Berkeley, then married Philip Ludwell I. Following his death, his sons Philip Ludwell II and Philip Ludwell III owned and lived at Green Spring. Philip Ludwell III died in 1767 while residing in London, and after the Revolution his son-in-law William Lee and William’s own son William Ludwell Lee lived at Green Spring.
William Ludwell Lee’s 1803 will stipulated that upon manumission, the freed citizens were to be given a tract of land on his property – possibly the first free black settlement in the state.
Upon their manumission, nearly 30 newly freed enslaved residents were granted 1,200 acres of land known as the Hot Water Tract. This community was still in existence at the time of the Civil War, but by the 20th century the land had been divided, sold off, and eventually was turned into Freedom Park.
The Free Black Settlement’s Reconstructed Homes
The Free Black Settlement at Freedom Park features three cabins, each reconstructed based on historical and archaeological research. Families lived here from 1804 until 1860, with the cabins built by Lee’s executor.
The three homes on display – Jackson, Brown, and Lightfoot – depict increasingly sophisticated methods of construction, and the relative wealth of the inhabitants. The Jackson home, a modest dwelling, “was typical for slaves, free Blacks, and poor Whites” and might only last 20 years before requiring replacement. John Jackson’s descendants still live in the area.
The Brown home (depicted in the main image, at top) was owned by freed slave Anthony Brown, a farmer, and his wife Rachel, a washerwoman. More sophisticated than the Jackson home, the Brown home shows the improvements that some were able to make in their living standards.
The third home on display, Lightfoot, belonged to Juba Lightfoot, an artisan. The exterior is covered with clapboards and the windows have shutters. Although Lightfoot had not been a Ludwell Lee slave, he spent much of his life at Hot Water Tract in Centerville, working as a bricklayer and plasterer.