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The Albemarle's Moses Grandy — A triumph of the human spirit

Posted on 02/11/2019 by Margie Berry

The Dismal Swamp Canal - Joseph Hyatt

African American History month, is a good time to recall one of the Albemarle’s most courageous characters—maritime slave Moses Grandy. Enslaved for four decades, Grandy worked as a waterman to purchase his freedom. Cheated of it twice by unscrupulous owners, he finally achieved his dream of emancipation.

Moses Grandy IllustrationMoses Grandy was born a slave in Camden in 1786, on the plantation of prominent planter William Grandy. As a child, Moses was the playmate of his owner’s son, James. When both boys were 8 years old, Moses became James’ property. At age 10, he was hired out for work on a ferryboat on the Pasquotank River.

Moses’ erstwhile playmate proved to be an unfeeling master. James Grandy’s father had torn apart Moses’ family when he was a child by selling off four of his brothers and four of his sisters. James continued his father’s cruelty by selling off Moses’ young wife of 8 months, whom he never saw again. Moses later remarried and had several children. He became determined to achieve emancipation for himself and his family.

Working as a river ferryman, boatman on the Dismal Swamp Canal, and lighter captain, Moses was in a position to acquire and save money. James Grandy agreed to grant Moses his freedom for the sum of $600. Moses made regular payments to his master, only to find that, when he reached the agreed-upon sum, James refused to honor the agreement.
James Grandy later sold Moses to a Mr. Trewell. Again, Moses struck an agreement with his master to purchase his freedom, again for $600. Working for 2 ½ years to meet the obligation, Moses was once again cheated by his master and remained enslaved.

Finally, in 1827, Moses was sold to Captain Edward Minner, who allowed him to purchase his freedom. Moses then worked waterways between here and New York, in an attempt to emancipate other members of his family. At Captain Minner’s death, he relocated to Boston, fearing capture and a return to slavery.

Narrative of the life of Moses GrandyIn 1842, Moses Grandy sailed to London to help the abolitionist cause by providing a first-hand account of the horrors of slavery in the United States. Meeting with abolitionist George Thompson, the illiterate ex-slave dictated his experiences, which were published in a book, Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, Late a Slave in the United States of America. The proceeds of the book were used to purchase the emancipation of Moses’ family members.

In his later years, Moses Grandy traveled widely and spoke tirelessly against slavery. His efforts helped to fuel the Abolitionist movement here and in England. In 1843, he had the honor of addressing the world’s Anti-Slavery Convention.

Grandy’s legacy is not forgotten today. In 2006 a portion of Virginia State Route 165, in Deep Creek, Virginia, was renamed Moses Grandy Trail.

A study in fortitude and tenacity, Moses Grandy embodies the triumph of the human spirit over the most difficult adversity, during one of the most shameful chapters of our nation’s history.

If you would like to learn more about the life of Moses Grandy visit Page After Page Bookstore and browse their selection.

Illustration by Porte Crayon, Edited by Tara Ferguson. Great Dismal Swamp, Harper’s Magazine 1856 page 444.  The Dismal Swamp Canal photo, courtesy of Joseph Hiatt.

Marjory BerryMargie Berry - Museum of the Albemarle
Margie has been researching and writing scripts for the Historic Elizabeth City Ghost Walk since 2003. She wrote the book, "Legendary Locals of Elizabeth City." Serves as a board member for Friends of the Museum of the Albemarle. Love to travel and spend time at Nags Head.

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