This introduction, along with a transcription of James Hunter Terrell's will, is included in the James Hunter Terrell collection held at Special Collections, Alderman Library, University of Virginia. It is not known when the introduction was written or who wrote it, but the author may be Richard P. Minor, who made typed transcriptions of the letters. The introduction has been faithfully transcribed, so spelling errors and other idiosyncrasies have been preserved.
The story told by these letters goes back a long time to the days before the Civil War, and to Uncle Jimmey Terrell. Dr. James Hunter Terrell, familiarly known to his many nieces and nephews as Uncle Jimmey, lived at Music Hall, near Charlottsville in Albermarl County, Virginia. He farmed his land with slaves, and practiced medicine and surgery among his neighbors. It was an old established community, most of the families had lived on their land for several generations, and were related by blood or marriage. They had evolved a manner of living which still commands our respect and envy. In this setting Dr. Terrell lived, and died before the catastrophy which destroyed it forever.
Slavery was an accepted part of this life. Dr. Terrell had been accustomed to the possession of slaves from his earliest recollection. He accepted it as the proper relation between black man and white. There had always been a strong feeling against slavery, and as time went on it became more and more bitter. As the Doctor went about his daily duties, he must have thought a great deal about this problem. He saw the need of cheap labor to cultivate the plantations of the South; he knew from his own experience that the stories of brutality were exaggerated; but he knew, too, that the opportunity for such abuses existed and that they were sometimes practiced.
At his death, he left a most unusual will. "I hereby liberate and forever set free all the slaves which I may own at my death and their increase." But that was only half the problem, there was no place in the life of Virginia for a free negro. So the will further provided that each negro should have the choice of selecting his own master and returning to slavery, or of being sent to Africa. To meet the expense of transportation, and provide for the welfare of the colonists until they became established, the will provided that "my plantation in the County of Louisa commonly called the 'Ducking Hole Place'--- be sold --- and the proceeds --- for the benefit of my slaves hereby emancipated."
Great was the rejoicing of the negroes when they learned of their freedom. The hardships they were to face, the sorrow of leaving the home where they had been born and raised were not thought of in that first ecstasy. But as the time for departure drew near some grew doubtful. Even stout hearted William Douglass, an overseer who was to be the leader of the colonists, came to his mistress the night before they were to leave and begged that he might be left behind. But it was too late to turn back, and on December 6, 1856 they sailed from Norfork on the ship Mary Caroline Stevens.
In the band from Music Hall there were 58 and an additional 6 purchased and freed in order that families might not be separated. With them went 143 others from various parts of the South. They were under the care of the American Colonial Society, which had been organized for the purpose of returning negroes to Africa and had established a colony for them in Liberia.
It was a strange adventure -- colonists returning to the land from which their ancestor's had been brought as slaves; but a land strange and foreign to them. None of the hardy pioneer spirit of those who settled our own country animated these negroes. They were a childlike and dependent people, used to having their every need cared for. Freedom to them meant freedom from work, and the Africa to which they were going was to be the promised land.
Most of them settled first at Clay Ashland, on the coast of Liberia, near Monrovia. It was a low swampy country which proved to be very unhealthy, and during the first year eighteen died of the "acclimating fever." Those who survived moved to Careysburg, further in the interior where the climate was more suitable.
Each family was given thirty acres of land, on which they built their homes and established farms. Schools were provided for both children and adults, and what was more dear to them, churches. "Tell Ant Rachel that I now stans in the pulpit to clare the Gospel to the living the best way I no how." "we have the pleasure of going to church three times a week" "All who professed religion as we learn from our floks who died -- died in the faith -- and the others died as they lived."
The land was fertile and they were able to grow a great variety of crops. Sugar cane proved to be the most successful crop commercially. William Douglass, who was a negro of unusual industry and ability, soon established himself as a sugar grower with a plantation and sugar mill of his own. Some of those with less initiative worked for him.
In spite of the hardships and homesickness, the "great adventure" as they called it, proved successful. They liked the country and found nothing to regret in their move. "There is no hinderance cause for us to live in this place if we only can get a start; there can be most everything grown here that is eatable, and if it is cultivated in a right manner, and man will only plant it to grow." "dont think there could be any better country found for our colored race any part of the globe."
Their letters are mostly requests for the familiar food and clothing and tools to which they were accustomed but which were not available in their new home. "Please send me a barrell of salt pork, a barrell of tobacco, some pantelloon stuff for my boys and a piece of white cloth and some sewing cotton."
As the years went by their letters grew less frequent, but they tell the story of their adjustment to the new life and of their satisfaction with it.