While teaching history at the University of California Santa Cruz, VFH Fellow Greg O’Malley discovered the story of a Virginia-born slave whose tale of escape is an epic odyssey that even Homer would find incredible.
David George’s narrative is particularly compelling because in order to gain his freedom, he had to flee the United States in the very moment of its creation.
Recently O’Malley sat down with VFH’s Trey Mitchell to talk about his fellowship and what David George has to tell us about our nation’s founding.
TM: What’s the focus of your fellowship at VFH?
GO: I’m writing a biography of a man named David George, who was born a slave in Virginia and through a series of attempts to escape slavery ends up having a remarkable odyssey.
TM: What kind of odyssey?
GO: At the age of nineteen, George escapes a brutal slave master in Virginia and runs south and west to a frontier settlement. His master catches up with him, he runs again and is taken captive by Creek Indians in Georgia. He convinces a fur trader to pay off his old master and lives in South Carolina on a plantation for a period of years. Then, during the American Revolution, he runs to the British and gains emancipation by serving in the British army for the duration of the war. After the war, he’s evacuated to Nova Scotia. He experiences discrimination in Nova Scotia and signs up for a British colony in Sierra Leone and eventually dies in Africa.
TM: Wow. I think most people are familiar with slave narratives that occur during the antebellum period, but escaping slavery during the Revolution is something completely different.
GO: That’s exactly why I want to tell his story. I noticed most of my students were familiar with the Underground Railroad, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman but they have a hard time grasping slavery during the Colonial period when there are no free states to run to.
The limits that an enslaved person can even imagine for escape are different in the Colonial period than during the antebellum period. I think it’s a powerful story because here’s someone who clearly had the will to resist, to escape enslavement, but he didn’t have anywhere to go. So he keeps having these out of the frying pan and into the fire experiences. And yet he never gives up.
TM: Did he have a family?
GO: He says both his parents were born in Africa, he mentions several siblings, but when he runs from his Virginia plantation he never hears of them again. When he ends up in South Carolina, he marries and has children. He also becomes a Baptist preacher and founds what some argue is the first Black Baptist church in America.
TM: What happens to his family when he joins the British?
GO: The British offer blanket emancipation to anyone who runs to them and agrees to serve. Most don’t serve as soldiers, they work in support roles. So he actually shows up with his family and most of his congregation (about 50 people) in tow.
TM: What’s your source material? How do you know what you know about David George?
GO: George made a trip to London as a representative of the Sierra Leone community. Some Baptist ministers in London interviewed him and published a ten page account of his life that’s presented in his voice, though he didn’t write it down.
I also visited Sussex County, Virginia to see the land where George was born and search their public records. I wanted to try and find the plantation where he was born. The County Clerk there has written a really nice history of Sussex County. He drove me around and showed me where the different plantations had been that were possibilities. And I found a will there that makes a pretty good circumstantial case that George’s first master was James Chappell, a local sheriff for Sussex County.
TM: What drew you to VFH for your fellowship?
GO: The story starts here. George was born in Virginia so I wanted to come here to start my research. Being part of the intellectual community both here at VFH and more generally at UVA has been terrific.
TM: What do you hope to produce as a result of this fellowship?
GO: I’d like to have my research on his early life in Virginia complete and maybe a working draft of the first chapter of the biography I’m working on. Then I’ll go back to Santa Cruz and get back to teaching.