ENTRY

Foster, Kitty (ca. 1790–1863)

SUMMARY

Kitty Foster was a free African American woman who owned property just south of the University of Virginia, the site of which has been memorialized by the school. Born enslaved in Albemarle County, Foster was free by 1820 and renting land in an African American community near the university known as Canada. She purchased just more than two acres from a white merchant in 1833 and lived there until her death, washing clothes for students and faculty. In 1837, a university report accused her of holding firearms for students who were prohibited from carrying them on the university’s grounds. Foster died in 1863 and was buried in a cemetery on her property. Archaeologists discovered the cemetery in 1993, and in 2011 the University of Virginia dedicated a memorial on the site.

Catherine Foster, also known as Kitty, was born enslaved in Albemarle County sometime between 1790 and 1795. Her owner may have been Henry Foster, a white farmer whose will mentioned a slave named Cati. Ownership of Cati passed to Foster’s widow, Elizabeth Foster. Nothing is known of Kitty Foster’s parents or early life. She is listed in the 1830 federal census as white, suggesting that she may have been light-skinned and possibly the daughter of a white man. About 1816 she gave birth to a daughter, Sarah. She had two sons, German Evans and Burwell Evans, in 1817 and 1820 respectively. A daughter, Ann Foster, was born in 1830. The father or fathers of these children is unknown.

By 1820, Kitty Foster was free and living as a tenant in Albemarle County, just south of the University of Virginia. A community of several free African American households in that neighborhood came to be known as Canada. They worked as washerwomen, seamstresses, carpenters, and cobblers, mostly serving students and faculty. The presence of free African Americans at the university was generally discouraged, so much so that in 1847 the proctor recommended that washing be done by white hotelkeepers rather than local black women. The laws of Virginia also discouraged the presence of free blacks, restricting their rights and, according to an 1806 act, requiring that all newly freed African Americans leave Virginia within twelve months. Records show that the university paid Foster $4 in October 1832 to wash clothes.

In December 1833, Foster purchased slightly more than two acres of land in Canada previously owned and leased out by the white merchant John Winn. Historians have suggested that the purchase, just two years after Nat Turner’s Revolt and the subsequent passage of laws restricting the movement and actions of free blacks, may have served as an attempt to bolster her and her family’s social standing and safety.

John A. G. Davis

Foster’s name appears in the University of Virginia’s faculty minutes in 1834, detailing an incident on May 31 in which several students had “conducted themselves in a disorderly manner” in Canada, throwing flower pots and attempting to enter her home. She is mentioned again on June 3, 1837, this time in the journal of the faculty chairman, John A. G. Davis. Students regularly rioted and fired off weapons, which were banned from the university’s grounds, and Davis noted that they may have been storing their arms at Foster’s home. It is not clear how she may have come to hold the weapons, why, or whether any action was taken, although free blacks were themselves prohibited from possessing firearms. Davis was shot and killed three years later by a student.

Another attempt at bolstering the family’s standing came on October 6, 1857, when two of Foster’s grandchildren, twelve-year-old Susan Catharine Foster and nine-year-old Clayton R. Foster, applied to the Albemarle County Court for certification that they were neither free negroes nor mulattoes but rather what the General Assembly had described, in an 1833 law, as free persons of mixed blood. Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Thomas Jefferson‘s grandson and then a member of the university’s board of visitors, appeared in behalf of the children and the court agreed that they were “not negroes,” a distinction that allowed them to circumvent many of the restrictions on free African Americans. It did not, however, give them the full rights of white people.

Tax records from 1840 indicate improvements to the Foster property totaling $150, and a decade later her real estate was assessed as valuing $450. In 1860, its value had risen to $4,000, with Foster’s personal property totaling $300. Foster wrote her will in 1859 and died in 1863. She was buried in a cemetery on her property.

The Foster family continued to reside on the property until 1906. In 1993, archaeologists discovered about a dozen graves there, in what has come to be known as the South Lawn of the University of Virginia. Twenty more were found in 2005, and in 2011, President Teresa A. Sullivan dedicated a small park and memorial to Foster that includes a “shadow catcher” outlining the footprint of Foster’s house and nearby cemetery.

MAP
TIMELINE
ca. 1790—1795
Kitty Foster is born enslaved in Albemarle County.
1816
Kitty Foster gives birth to a daughter, Sarah.
1817
Kitty Foster gives birth to a son, German Evans.
1820
Kitty Foster, once a slave and now free, gives birth to a son, Burwell Evans.
1830
Kitty Foster gives birth to a daughter, Ann.
October 1832
The University of Virginia pays Kitty Foster $4 to wash clothes.
December 1833
Kitty Foster purchases slightly more than two acres of land in a neighborhood of free blacks known as Canada, just south of the University of Virginia.
May 31, 1834
The University of Virginia faculty minutes report that students were disorderly and attempted to enter the home of Kitty Foster, a free black woman.
June 3, 1837
John A. G. Davis, the University of Virginia faculty, notes that the free black woman Kitty Foster may be storing weapons for students.
1840
Tax records indicate improvements to Kitty Foster's property totaling $150.
1850
Kitty Foster's real estate is assessed as valuing $450.
October 6, 1857
Two of Kitty Foster's grandchildren successfully apply in Albemarle County Court for certification as persons of mixed blood.
1859
Kitty Foster writes her will.
1860
Kitty Foster's real estate is assessed as valuing $4,000. She has personal property worth $300.
1863
Kitty Foster dies and is buried on her property just south of the University of Virginia.
1993
Archaeologists discover about a dozen graves in the area of the University of Virginia known as the South Lawn. They are associated with the property once owned by the free black woman Kitty Foster.
2005
Twenty more graves are discovered in the area of the University of Virginia known as the South Lawn. They are associated with the property once owned by the free black woman Kitty Foster.
2011
The University of Virginia president, Teresa A. Sullivan, dedicates a small park and memorial to the free black woman Kitty Foster.
FURTHER READING
  • Virginia Department of Historic Resources, “The Foster Site,” National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, United States Department of the Interior, April 1, 2016.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. Foster, Kitty (ca. 1790–1863). (2021, February 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/foster-kitty-ca-1790-1863.
MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "Foster, Kitty (ca. 1790–1863)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 Feb. 2021). Web. 04 Aug. 2021
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