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The Surprising Legal Career of Jane Webb

Jane Webb was a woman of mixed race—her mother was a white indentured servant and her father was an enslaved Black man—who grew up in Northampton County on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in the late 1600s. Because her mother was free and the General Assembly had decreed that the status of the child followed that of the mother, Webb was a free woman. In keeping with the law, however, she was indentured for the first eighteen years of her life due to her mixed-race, out-of-marriage birth. Such indentures were used to keep children who were perceived as illegitimate from becoming the responsibility of the community.

Webb completed her indenture and became free around 1700. In 1703 she married an enslaved man named Left. This wasn’t unusual. Free women of color outnumbered free men of color by almost two to one on the Eastern Shore, which at the time was home to Virginia’s largest population of free Black people. And it’s here that we see the beginnings of Webb’s legal consciousness. 

Webb wanted to ensure that her marriage to Left would have some kind of legal recognition so that any children born to them would be recognized as free. So she entered into an extraordinary contract with Thomas Savage, the man who enslaved Left. In it, she indentured herself to Savage for seven years and agreed that any children born to the couple through 1711 would be indentured to Savage until they were eighteen. After that, Left would be freed and any additional children they had would bear no obligation to Savage. 

It was, writes Terri Snyder in our new entry on Jane Webb, a “legally astute” move, made in part because Webb saw other free Blacks around her using the courts to protect their rights. It also put Webb in an unusual position. At the time, women gave up their legal personhood when they married. But because Webb’s husband was enslaved and had no personhood under the law, Webb became the legal head of their household—a position that no married white woman enjoyed at the time. Their children—they would have seven—took the Webb surname in recognition of this extraordinary status. 

Despite Webb’s care with the legal arrangements of her family, Savage disputed their contract and tried to not only extend the indentures of the children whose service he was entitled to, but the Webb children born after 1711. He also refused to free Left. But Webb didn’t back down. Serving as her own representative in court, Webb deployed a sophisticated array of legal strategies, as our entry details, before eventually suing Savage in a bold move to ensure the freedom of her family.

And as her case wound through the system, Webb displayed an acute awareness of the eroding rights of free Blacks in colonial Virginia. In 1722, free Blacks were barred from voting and holding elected office; eventually, they would be restricted from serving on juries. It was during the chancery court hearing for Webb’s lawsuit that the justices ruled that the testimony of free Blacks couldn’t be admitted in court. Ultimately, this would doom Webb’s effort to free her husband. But the Webb children did eventually live as free Blacks, although with increasingly fragile rights that they, like their mother, would fight to preserve.

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