a will dated 1816

Why did Jane, Judith and Lucy

remain in Kentucky three years

before they were able to return to Virginia?

Letters, archived in Richmond

tell the backstory like a movie.

The young women left

with their widowed father

to join an uncle in business

in the neighboring state.

No more than settled,

the father inconveniently

and promptly died.

The two sons of the family

write from college

to report their activities.

The girls write to beg

return to friends and family

at a house called Blenheim.

The brother of their mother took

them into his home.

Like all women of their day,

they had no money, no property

of their own and were the charity

of family or friends when orphaned

or widowed without inheritance.

But wait. The will says they did have property;

two black men and three black women.

How do you spend a person?

Lop off a hand to pay for passage?

Sell them whole?

Not without uncle’s permission.

Were the men sent to the field and tobacco barns

to pay board and room for all?

Were the women in the house pressed to serve—or service?

Was this their value, too precious to export?

We know who was slave but who was free?

Janet Taliaferro