Joseph Abrams (1791–1854)


Joseph Abrams was a Baptist minister and spent most of his life enslaved in Richmond. His owner, Joshua J. Fry, freed him in 1844 and Abrams managed to gain ownership of his large family and free them, too, in 1851. He was best known as a gifted ordained preacher who served Richmond’s African Americans until it became illegal to do so after Nat Turner’s Revolt in 1831. He continued his church work, however, and became a founding member and deacon of Richmond’s First African Baptist Church. When he died, in 1854, Abrams’s funeral attracted 8,000 mourners of both races.

Abrams was a slave for fifty-three of the sixty-three years of his life. Born in 1791, he married Sarah and had two daughters, Emily and Frances. Manumitted on November 8, 1844, by Richmond commission merchant Joshua J. Fry, Abrams soon gained ownership of his wife, daughters, and six grandchildren, whom he freed on October 13, 1851. Although listed in the 1850 census as an unskilled laborer, Abrams commanded sufficient resources to free himself and his immediate relatives, purchase two building lots in Richmond’s Madison Ward from Fry in 1845, erect a comfortable house for his family, and leave an estate valued at nearly $1,500 when he died. His journey from bondage to respectability in but a few years marked Abrams as a person of rare abilities and good fortune.

First African Baptist Church

Abrams was best known as a man of faith. For most of his adult life he enjoyed an enviable reputation as a religious leader and gifted preacher among Richmond’s numerous African American Christians. He joined the First Baptist Church in 1817, served as its deacon for many years, and functioned as an ordained Baptist minister until legally silenced by the ban on black preachers in the wake of Nat Turner’s Revolt. White Richmonders regarded him highly and permitted him to officiate at funerals and deliver informal exhortations. In 1841 Abrams became a founding member and pioneer deacon of the First African Baptist Church. As a religious leader he deftly ministered to his people’s need for affirmation and self-respect without arousing the enmity of the authorities. When discoursing on the trials that early Christians faced, for example, he reminded listeners that suffering persecution for doing the Lord’s work was not confined to the apostolic age and recalled a brutal whipping he had received for preaching the Gospel. Testifying to Abrams’s effectiveness, Robert Ryland, the white pastor of the African Church, remarked that Abrams “was heard with far more interest than I was, and on this account, I should have often requested him to speak, but for fear of involving him and the church in legal trouble.”

Abrams’s death on June 4, 1854, was an ordinary event in the life of the city, but the African American community responded to it in extraordinary fashion. Black Baptists in Richmond, Manchester, Petersburg, and Fredericksburg raised money for a tombstone, fellow deacons inscribed it with an eloquent memorial, and a massive crowd attended his funeral. The outpouring illuminated the man and his community. His funeral, which attracted 8,000 mourners of both races, was one of the largest held in the city to that time, and it dwarfed those usually accorded public officials and business leaders. In death Abrams’s importance to his fellow free blacks and slaves was fully manifested. By turning out in record numbers to honor one of their own, black Richmonders honored each other. By paying homage to an exemplary man who had been a slave for most of his life, they publicly repudiated racial mores and slave codes that crimped their lives and burdened their spirits.

Joseph Abrams is born enslaved.
Joseph Abrams joins the First Baptist Church in Richmond.
Archibald Batte sues a white man for breaking into his property but loses.
Joseph Abrams is a founding member and pioneer deacon of the First African Baptist Church in Richmond.
November 8, 1844
Joseph Abrams is manumitted by the Richmond merchant Joshua J. Fry.
October 13, 1851
Joseph Abrams frees his family after gaining ownership of them.
June 4, 1854
Joseph Abrams dies. His funeral is the largest held in the city to that time.
  • O’Brien, John T. “Abrams, Joseph.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 1, edited by John T. Kneebone, et al., 13–14. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998.
APA Citation:
O'Brien, John & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Joseph Abrams (1791–1854). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/abrams-joseph-1791-1854.
MLA Citation:
O'Brien, John, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Joseph Abrams (1791–1854)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 May. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.