Dominion of New York

Black History Month

February 26, 2012

Sally’s Plan — How One Slave Mother’s Genius Helped Free All Her Children

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Written by: Kelly Virella


Photo caption: La Négresse is an 1872 sculpture by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. It’s not inspired specifically by Sally. But an inscription at the base captures her sentiment, saying, “Pourquoi! Naître esclave!” (Why born a slave!) Photo courtesy of Flickr/ultraclay!


ne deeply disturbing aspect of the history between blacks and whites is the amount of money we’ve paid them to have what is naturally ours: freedom. As our black history month series has shown, slave after slave bought his or her way out. And then there is the matter of the entire country of Haiti, which overthrew France’s slave-ocracy but paid her colonial masters  an estimated 90 million gold francs in reparations. With interest and inflation, it’s $40 billion. Haitians made their last payment to France in 1947.

If ever there were a ‘Deal with the Devil,’ these reparations were. But without arms and industry to win and secure their freedom, our ancestors had three choices — run from the demons, pay the demons or be their slaves. Sally — a Virginia slave who moved with her master to Nashville, Tennessee — understood her dilemma and responded as shrewdly as a woman could to her horrific circumstances. She is a true testament to black women’s ability to ‘make a way out of no way.’

This is Sally's grandson, John H. Rapier, Jr. He became a medical doctor and one of 8 black surgeons to serve in the Civil War.

Sally was born about 1790 and by her mid-20s, she had two sons, both mulatto, by different men. Upon arriving in Tennessee, Sally convinced her slimebag owner to allow her to rent herself out as a cleaning lady, a practice common among urban slaves. Securing the right to retain some of her wages — also common — she began slaving away to buy her children. She also put each of them to work, retaining a portion of their wages too.

With the boy’s emancipation price set over $2,000 — over $46,000 in modern terms — the chances of success were slim. Their wages were low — after years of work, they’d only saved $300 — and there was always the threat that another white man would sexually abuse and impregnate Sally — increasing her poverty.  Sure enough, at the age of 36, she gave birth to another mulatto son. The father of her third was a Tennessee judge and future United States Supreme Court Justice John Catron. All he ever gave his son was 25 cents.

The prospects for buying her children’s freedom freedom looked bleak. But before each of the boys reached adulthood, they were freed and became successful businessmen. Her remarkable story of hard work, setback, good luck, persistence and triumph has been recorded by University of North Carolina historian Loren Schweninger and is worth your time today. Please read it below.

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A Slave Family in the Antebellum South


About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.


New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, left to right. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Azipaybarah