Abram Brown (d. 1840)


Abram Brown was a Baptist lay leader in Charles City County who helped found Elam Baptist Church in 1818. Born free, Brown farmed on land he inherited from his father and was wealthy compared to most African Americans of his day. He joined a Baptist church in Petersburg but soon after established a separate church on his Charles City County land and took a leadership role in his local religious community. In 1818 he transferred the land to the church, thus taking credit as founder of Elam Baptist Church. Little else is known about Brown’s life. He had at least eight children, many of whom, along with their own children and grandchildren, played important roles in the African American community of Charles City County. Brown died in 1840.

Brown was born in the eastern portion of Charles City County sometime between 1767 and 1774, the son of Abram Brown and Sarah Brown. The family had been free for at least two generations before Brown’s birth. Brown’s paternal grandmother, identified in local records as being of mixed racial background that likely included Indigenous and European as well as African ancestry, bound out his father and two uncles as apprentices during the 1740s. By 1769 Brown’s father had purchased two farms containing a total of 273 acres. The elder Abram Brown acquired additional land and at least three enslaved people, and as a respectable property owner he joined a large number of county residents in signing a petition to the General Assembly in 1780.

Following his father’s death about 1790, Abram Brown, whose name also appears as Abraham Brown in county records, inherited 130 acres, on which he raised wheat and corn and enjoyed a comfortable existence rare for African Americans in Virginia during the early republic. By the time of his death, he had acquired books, silver spoons, a brass candleholder and snuffers, a mantle clock, and a considerable quantity of household kitchen furniture. One of the wealthiest men in Charles City County’s Black community, Brown was paying taxes on a gig, or pleasure carriage, by 1828.

Constitution of the First Baptist Church

Brown was instrumental in founding his community’s religious and institutional heart. Many local African Americans, including his father and siblings, had been affiliated with the First Baptist Church in Petersburg, but he apparently did not join that church until 1809 or 1810. Soon thereafter Brown helped establish a separate church in Charles City County (known originally simply as the Baptist Church but by 1813 called Elam), and in autumn 1813 the church successfully petitioned for membership in the Dover Baptist Association, the regional church conference. He became a frequent delegate to the association’s annual conferences, and in 1819 he served on a biracial committee that visited and reported on conditions at Hanover Baptist Church. On November 20, 1818, Brown deeded to the church the small tract of land on which its meetinghouse stood, thus securing himself the credit as founder of Elam Baptist Church. The original building burned in 1919, but the congregation survived and is one of the oldest Black churches in Virginia.

The Freedmen's Bureau.

Brown’s other legacy to Charles City County was his family, which continued its leadership of the church and the Black community of Ruthville. With his wife, Susanna Brown, whose maiden name and marriage date are unknown, he had perhaps as many as ten children, of whom four sons and four daughters reached maturity. Their son Christopher Brown inherited the Browns’ house and 20 acres of land, and the other three brothers inherited and divided the remaining 110 acres. The youngest son, Samuel Brown, eventually acquired from the other heirs the entire tract his father had owned and bequeathed it in turn to his sons. Samuel Brown became the county’s most prominent Black citizen in the first generation after the American Civil War (1861–1865). Identified in the 1850 census as a Baptist clergyman, he became the county’s first licensed Black minister in 1866. Officials of the Freedmen’s Bureau described Brown as an educated and respectable man. Immediately after the Civil War, he opened a short-lived school at Elam for the county’s Black children. Brown was appointed, then elected, county superintendent of the poor in November 1870 and held that post until his death in November 1881.

Gillfield Baptist Church

Members of subsequent generations of the Brown family also achieved positions of social and political prominence. Samuel Brown’s son Samuel Allen Brown, grandson of Abram Brown, served as pastor of Petersburg’s historic Gillfield Baptist Church for almost forty years. Abram Brown’s grandson Crawford Brown served intermittently as a justice of the peace and district overseer of the poor in Charles City County from the 1870s through the 1890s. Two other county justices, Seaton Brown and Fleming Brown, the county’s only nineteenth-century Black supervisor, William S. Brown, and a twentieth-century supervisor, Howard D. Brown, may also have been related to Abram Brown.

Comparatively little is known about the family and personal life of Abram Brown, but he was a central figure in the history of a family that was for generations before and after Emancipation a pillar of one of the state’s largest, most prosperous, and most stable Black communities. Brown wrote his will on April 12, 1836, and died sometime in August 1840. He was “decently and plainly interred” as specified in his will, probably at his home or in the graveyard of Elam Baptist Church in Charles City County.

Sometime between these dates Abram Brown is born in eastern Charles City County.
By this year the elder Abram Brown has purchased two farms in Charles City County containing a total of 273 acres.
ca. 1790
Abram Brown inherits 130 acres in Charles City County after his father's death.
1809 or 1810
Abram Brown joins the First Baptist Church in Petersburg.
By this date the Baptist Church in Charles City County, founded in part by Abram Brown, comes to be known as Elam Baptist Church.
November 20, 1818
Abram Brown deeds to Elam Baptist Church the small tract of land on which its meetinghouse stands.
Abram Brown serves on a biracial committee that visits and reports on conditions at Hanover Baptist Church.
April 12, 1836
Abram Brown writes his will.
August 1840
Abram Brown dies and is buried either at his home or in the graveyard of Elam Baptist Church in Charles City County.
  • Dance, Daryl Cumber. The Lineage of Abraham: The Biography of a Free Black Family in Charles City, VA. Self-published, 1998.
  • Coski, John M. “Brown, Abram.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 2, edited by Sara B. Bearss, et al., 277–279. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001.
APA Citation:
Coski, John & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Abram Brown (d. 1840). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/brown-abram-d-1840.
MLA Citation:
Coski, John, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Abram Brown (d. 1840)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 21 May. 2024
Last updated: 2024, January 02
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