Walter Hoye

Elizabeth Key Grinstead

In Abortion, Special Edition on November 4, 2013 at 1:31 am
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Without life, nothing matters.

Freedom Suit Series

“Anyone who kidnaps someone and either sells him as a slave or still has him when he is caught must be put to death.” — Exodus 21:16, New Century Version (NCV) 

Freedom suits are legal petitions filed by slaves for freedom. Between America’s colonial period and the American Civil War, a number of civil actions were brought to courts of law by STRONG BLACK WOMEN that challenged both the moral maxim and the legal legitimacy of JUST-SUBJECTION 1 and WRONGFUL-ENSLAVEMENT 2 in America. This series of columns will explore those lawsuits and expose lessons that can be engaged by the Body of Christ and the Pro-Life movement today, in the wake of the 1973 United States Supreme Court (USSC) decisions in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton.

White Space Holder

Elizabeth Key Grinstead

Meet The First Black Woman To Sue For Her Freedom From Slavery And Win …

Elizabeth Key Grinstead

Elizabeth Key Grinstead (born circa 1630 – deceased circa 1665) was the first Black woman
in the North American colonies to sue for her freedom from slavery and win. 3

Daughter of Thomas Key

” … race has been a profound determinant of one’s political rights, one’s location in the labor market, and indeed one’s sense of ‘identity.'” 4 — Michael Omi and Howard Winant

Elizabeth was born about 1630 in historical Warwick County, Virginia (modern Newport News), not far from Jamestown and Williamsburg in the original Virginia Colony. Her mother was a Black slave and Elizabeth was the illegitimate child of Englishman and Burgess, Thomas Key. As an Englishman, a planter, Thomas Key was also a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses during its March 1629|1630 session and represented pre-Revolutionary Warwick County. Key’s wife lived on the Isle of Wight County across the James River. There Mrs. Key owned a considerable amount of property. Both Mr. and Mrs. Key were born in England. The Keys were known as pioneer planters because after having paid their own passage to Virginia before 1616, they remained for more than three (3) years and even survived the Indian massacre of 1622. However, fourteen (14) years later, in a 1636 civil case at the Blunt Point court, Thomas Key was charged with being the father of Elizabeth. While he at first denied being Elizabeth’s father, blaming an unidentified “Turk” (which the English colonists would not have considered a free English subject or a Christian), court testimony from witnesses proved his paternity. As such, Key then took responsibility for Elizabeth and even arranged for her baptism in the established Church of England.

Nineteen (19) Years Of Servitude

“Although indentured servitude was temporary and not inheritable, in many respects servitude was indistinguishable from slavery, masters treated indentured servants like land or chattel, selling or gambling them away at will.” 5 — Taunya Lovell Banks

Sometime before Key’s death around 1636, he put then six (6) years old Elizabeth Key in the custody of Humphrey Higginson by way of a nine (9) year indentured servant contract. Higginson, a wealthy planter in his own right, was expected to act as Elizabeth’s legal guardian until she reached the age of fifteen (15). At that time, which was the “coming of age” for girls in colonial Virginia where young girls often married or started to work for wages, Elizabeth would be free. However, once Key was dead, Higginson did not live up to his commitment to care for Elizabeth as his own. Instead, Higginson transferred (or sold) Elizabeth’s indentured contract to Northumberland County’s first settler, Colonel John Mottram. Around 1640, Mottram took Elizabeth at the age of ten (10) as his servant to the undeveloped county.

Married And A Mother By Common Law

“Under common law the legal identity and status of a wife merged with that of her husband; they became one in the eyes of the law, and that one was the husband.” 6 — United States v. Yazell

At about 1650 Colonel Mottram paid for passage to his Coan Hall plantation in Northumberland County for a group of twenty (20) White young Englishmen as indentured servants. Each indentured person would serve for six (6) years to pay for his passage from England. Among the group was a young sixteen (16) year old lawyer by the name of William Grinstead (also spelled Greenstead). While William’s parents are not known, it is believed young Grinstead learned law as the younger son of an attorney. Interestingly, under English common law, only the eldest son could inherit the father’s real property and in William’s day it was common for the younger son to seek his own fortune in the American colonies. Colonel Mottram, recognizing Grinstead’s value as a lawyer, used Williams for legal representation in matters concerning Coan Hall. It was during this time that Grinstead and Elizabeth Key met. While William and Elizabeth were prohibited from marrying because Grinstead was still serving his indenture and Elizabeth’s future was uncertain, they nevertheless began a relationship and had a son together, whom they named John.

Elizabeth’s Freedom Suit Begins

“In the typical freedom suit there would be no need for an English servant to assert free birth since by the seventeenth century English men and women were presumptively free. Likewise the typical English indentured servant would not have to assert her Christian belief since Christianity also was presumed for English subjects. Evidently, Elizabeth (or the person who drafted the pleadings) understood that her claim was atypical suggesting a sophisticated understanding of community norms.” 7 — Taunya Lovell Banks

After Colonel Mottram died in 1655, the overseers of his estate classified Elizabeth Key and her infant son John as Negro slaves and part of the property assets of the Mottram estate. In an effort to win the freedom of his wife and son, young Grinstead acted as Elizabeth’s attorney and sued the Mottram estate on behalf of his common law wife, Elizabeth, over her status. The lawsuit claimed Elizabeth was not a slave, but a free woman, (an indentured servant who had faithfully served her time) with a freeborn son. According to the record, not only was Elizabeth’s Father (Thomas Key) a free English man, but Elizabeth had served as an indentured servant ten (10) years beyond the terms of her indenture. Again, interestingly and according to Jacob A. France Professor of Equality Jurisprudence at the Francis King Carey School of Law of the University of Maryland, Taunya Lovell Banks,8 at that time “English Subjecthood” and not “Citizenship” was more important for determining social status in the colony and at the crux of the matter. Apparently, in the early seventeenth (17th) century, “children born to English parents outside the country became English subjects at birth. While others could become naturalized English subjects,” there was no clear process at the time in the colonies. Moreover and what was clearly unsettled, was the status of children of such relationships if only one of the parents was an English subject. As foreigners were not considered English subjects. Because Non-Whites were ultimately denied civil rights as foreigners, mixed-race persons seeking freedom often had to establish their English ancestry in court.

Establishing Elizabeth’s English Ancestory

“Thus by asserting that her father was a free Englishman, Elizabeth was arguing that she too was born free.” 9 — Taunya Lovell Banks

In order to establish whether Elizabeth’s father was a free English man, the Court relied on the testimony of witnesses. Again, according researcher and author Taunya Lovell Banks, “the most persuasive evidence” came from Elizabeth Newman, eighty (80) and a former servant of Colonel Mottram. Newman testified that “it was a common Fame in Virginia that Elizabeth a Molletto (sic mulatto), now (e) servant to the Estate of Col. John Mottrom, deceased, was the Daughter of Mr. Kaye (Key); and the said Kaye (Key) was brought to Blunt-Point Court and there fined for getting his Negro woman with Childe, which said Negroe was the Mother of the said Molletto, and the said fine was for getting the Negro with Childe which Childe was the said Elizabeth.” Having proved Thomas Key’s paternity, by common law the Court granted his daughter Elizabeth her freedom. However, needing two (2) more slaves, the Mottram’s estate appealed the decision to the General Court, where the lower court’s decision was overturned. The General Court ruled that Elizabeth Key was indeed a slave because of her mother’s status as Negro.

Overturned But Not Over By Long Shot

“[I]f a villain taketh a free woman to wife, and have issue between them, the issues shaIl be villains. But if a nief [bondwoman] taketh a free man to her husband, their issue shall be free.” 10 — Sir Edward Coke’s British Jurisprudence

Unable to see his wife and child denied freedom, William took Elizabeth’s case to the Virginia General Assembly, which appointed a committee to further investigate the matter. Ultimately the Virginia General Assembly sent the case back to the lower court for retrial. In the end Elizabeth won her freedom on three (3) counts of which the most important was that, by English common law, the status of the father determined the status of the child. Clearly, Elizabeth’s father (Thomas Key, a man of considerable reputation who expressly desired his wishes for his acknowledged daughter Elizabeth be carried out) was a free Englishman and that Elizabeth herself was a practicing Christian. Additionally, the case was strengthened by other cases that held Black Christians could not be held in servitude for life. Furthermore and to drive the point home regarding the status of the father determined the status of the child, the court ordered the Mottram estate to compensate Elizabeth with corn and clothes for her lost years.

On 21th July 1659 This Certificate Was Published In Open Court 11

“I Capt. Richard Wright administrator of the Estate of Col. John Mottrom deceased doe assigne and transfer unto William Greensted a maid servant formerly belonging unto the Estate of the said Col. Mottrom commonly called Elizabeth Key being nowe Wife unto the said Greensted and doe warrant the said Elizabeth and doe bind my Selfe to save here [i.e., her] and the said Greensted from any molestation or trouble that shall or futurely arise from or by any person or persons that shall pretend or claime any title or interest to any manor of service [original torn] from the said Elizabeth witness [my ha]nd this 21th of July 1659 Test William Thomas, Richard Wright, James Austen.”

The Aftermath Of The Victory

“Elizabeth’s life, even as a servant, was probably more comfortable than most slaves due to the efforts of her father, Thomas Key, who undertook several actions to protect Elizabeth from the unscrupulous and greedy members of the Virginia colony. He placed her in a relatively comfortable servitude setting and provided written instructions about her care and status. In this respect she was luckier than most Anglo-African children of her era.” 12 — Taunya Lovell Banks

Although William fought and won the court battle for his wife’s (Elizabeth) and son’s (John) freedom, Grinstead could not marry Elizabeth until he completed his indenture, which occurred in 1656. Accordingly, the marriage between William Grinstead and Elizabeth Key was one of the few recorded marriages in the seventeenth century between an Englishman and a free Black woman. Together they had two (2) sons before William died early in 1661. As a widow Elizabeth Grinstead later remarried, to the widower John Parse (Pearce). Upon his death, she and her sons John and William Grinstead II inherited 500 acres, which helped secure their future.

Legally Discouraging Holy Matrimony With Black Women 13,14

“Under a 1642 law free Black women had special burdens unlike free Englishwomen. The statute provided that the labor of Black, but not White women was taxed, thus marriage to a free Black woman automatically increased the tax burden of the family without regard to the husband’s race. Arguably the financial burden colonial Virginia’s tax laws placed on free Black women may have decreased their chances of marrying, and may be one reason why despite an equal sex ratio between Black women and men, many free Black men, at least on the eastern shore, married White women. In addition, when you consider the implications of the later 1662 law tying perpetual slavery to the wombs of Black women, you have another factor discouraging free men, Black or White, from selecting Black women as wives.” Very clearly, William Grinstead Loved Elizabeth Key!

The Aftereffects Of The Victory

When humans considered mere chattel by law can exert power or influence the law, these humans become dangerous, thus Elizabeth Key and others like her who resisted their enslavement were dangerous women!” — Taunya Lovell Banks 15

Because White men did not want to be held responsible for the children they fathered with Black women, the need for the means to be relieved from both the moral and legal responsibility of having children with slaves presented itself. Consequently and as historian Edmund S. Morgan16 may suggest, a harsher scheme of racial slavery evolved, resulting in “a hardening of racial lines” and contributing to a growth in a clear “commitment to democracy, liberty, equality” and finance for White men. You see, unlike slaves, White servants and free workers could not be stripped naked and whipped to death without legally actionable repercussions. As such, it was quickly determined that the law was the perfect tool to justify rake, raw, rogue and reprobate behavior. So in order to both accommodate the unrestrainable sexual desires of wealthy White men and to facilitate the propagation of Christianity, the law was manipulated as detailed by historian William Waller Hening17 below:

December 1662

“Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a Negro woman should be slave or free, be it therefore enacted and declared by this present Grand Assembly, that all children born in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother; and that if any Christian shall commit fornication with a Negro man or woman, he or she so offending shall pay double the fines imposed by the former act.”

September 1667

“Whereas some doubts have risen whether children that are slaves by birth, and by the charity and piety of their owners made partakers of the blessed sacrament of baptism, should by virtue of their baptism be made free, it is enacted and declared by this Grand Assembly, and the authority thereof, that the conferring of baptism does not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom; that diverse masters, freed from this doubt may more carefully endeavor the propagation of Christianity by permitting children, through slaves, or those of greater growth if capable, to be admitted to that sacrament.”

September 1668

“Whereas it has been questioned whether servants running away may be punished with corporal punishment by their master or magistrate, since the act already made gives the master satisfaction by prolonging their time by service, it is declared and enacted by this Assembly that moderate corporal punishment inflicted by master or magistrate upon a runaway servant shall not deprivate the master of the satisfaction allowed by the law, the one being as necessary to reclaim them from persisting in that idle course as the other is just to repair the damages sustained by the master.”

October 1669

“Whereas the only law in force for the punishment of refractory servants resisting their master, mistress, or overseer cannot be inflicted upon Negroes, nor the obstinacy of many of them be suppressed by other than violent means, be it enacted and declared by this Grand Assembly if any slave resists his master (or other by his master’s order correcting him) and by the extremity of the correction should chance to die, that his death shall not be accounted a felony, but the master (or that other person appointed by the master to punish him) be acquitted from molestation, since it cannot be presumed that premeditated malice (which alone makes murder a felony) should induce any man to destroy his own estate.”

“An Act For Suppressing Outlying Slaves” (1691) 18

Transcription From Original

April 1691

“And be it further enacted by the authoritie aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, That if any English woman being free shall have a bastard child by any negro or mulatto, she pay the sume of fifteen pounds sterling, within one moneth after such bastard child be born, to the Church wardens of the parish where she shall be delivered of such child, and in default of such payment she shall be taken into the possession of the said Church wardens and disposed of for five yeares, and the said fine of fifteen pounds, or whatever the woman shall be disposed of for, shall be paid, one third part to their majesties for and towards the support of the government and the contingent charges thereof, and one other third part to the use of the parish where the offence is committed, and the other third part to the informer, and that such bastard child be bound out as a servant by the said Church wardens untill he or she shall attaine the age of thirty yeares, and in case such English woman that shall have such bastard child be a servant, she shall be sold by the said Church wardens, (after her time is expired that she ought by law to serve her master) for five yeares, and the money she shall be sold for divided as is before appointed, and the child to serve as aforesaid.

And forasmuch as great inconveniences may happen to this country by the setting of negroes and mulattoes free, by their either entertaining negro slaves from their masters service, or receiveing stolen goods, or being grown old bringing a charge upon the country; for prevention thereof, Be it enacted by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, That no negro or mulatto be after the end of this present session of assembly set free by any person or persons whatsoever, unless such person or persons, their heires, executors or administrators pay for the transportation of such negro or negroes out of the countrey within six moneths after such setting them free, upon penalty of paying of tenn pounds sterling to the Church wardens of the parish where such person shall dwell with, which money, or so much thereof as shall be necessary, the said Church wardens are to cause the said negro or mulatto to be transported out of the countrey, and the remainder of the said money to imploy to the use of the poor of the parish.”

Open Letter To The Church

LESSON: You Cannot Legislate Morality!

A Lesson We Can Learn From The Case Of Elizabeth Key Grinstead

“Thus the existence of mixed-raced children was seen as a threat to the very existence of the colonial community’s and English nation’s identity. Elizabeth’s father, understanding the unscrupulousness of his fellow colonialists, tried to protect his offspring from the cruelties of American indenture as well as possible enslavement. His efforts coupled with those of Elizabeth and her advocate resulted in her freedom.” — Taunya Lovell Banks 19

First and foremost, in the midst of the horrors of being Black and female in the American colonies in the seventeenth century, we find Elizabeth Key boldly fighting for her freedom against all odds. Elizabeth Key is recognized as being the first person, male or female, to sue for her freedom and win.20 The record is clear, that not only did she free herself, but Elizabeth also gained the freedom of her newborn son. In so doing, Elizabeth planted hope in the heart of slaves everywhere, that they too could be free. Elizabeth’s life story stands out in the annuals of Black American history, as not only a bright light in a very dark world, but also a testament to the intestinal fortitude of Black women standing up for justice in the midst of unimagineable, and perhaps for some unforgivable injustice. Moreover, the record is also clear that Elizabeth did not win her battle alone. Thomas Key (Elizabeth’s Father), after first denying his paternity and yet at the same “understanding the unscrupulousness of his fellow colonialists,” manned up to his fatherhood and tried to protect his daughter Elizabeth. Further still, William Grinstead fell in love with Elizabeth at Coan Hall,21 became her husband, fathered their sons John and William Grinstead II 22 and spent the rest of his life fighting for the freedom of his family.

Yes, the record is indeed clear that both Black and White Christians worked together to manifest the righteousness of God in the American colonies of the seventeenth century. First we have a strong Black woman fighting for her freedom. Second we have a wealthy White colonialist coming to grips with his Christian responsibility as a father and upon recognizing the reality of the immoral mindset of his fellow “church going” colonialists, fighting until his death for the freedom of his daughter. Third and finally we have a color blind husband and lawyer, loving his wife and children and faithfully fighting until his death for his family. Wow! What a model for both the Pro-Life movement and the Church today! Just look at what God can do, when we accept the reality of His righteous reign, the reality of the sin in our midst (1st Peter 4:17) and love one another enough to live and labor together as one Body in Christ to effect His Will on earth.

Could it be, that the Body of Christ will not see victory, until we understand that judgement must begin in the Church (1st Peter 4:17) and both acknowledge and repent from the evil in our midst? Could it be, that the Body of Christ will continue to lose ground, until we learn to work together as brothers and sisters in Christ to meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the most vulnerable population among us, that is to say until we meet the needs of women and children (James 1:27)? Could it be, that the Body of Christ will continue to languish in the lamentation of bitter weeping (Jeremiah 31:15) from the millions upon millions of Rachels weeping for their children, until we get that Rachel is weeping because her children are not? Could it be, that the Body of Christ will continue to suffer loss in the public square, until we stop leaning more on legislating morality, than we do on the everlasting mercy and grace (Psalm 100:5, 1st Corinthians 15:10) of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ to advance His kingdom?

Yeah, I think it could.

Brothers, we need to talk.


 In my very, very strong opinion, THE BIBLE DOES NOT JUSTIFY SLAVERY. If pastors (christian leaders) of the South taught their congregants to obey the Mosaic laws that criminalized kidnapping human beings, the harsh treatment of servants, the return of runaway servants and without preferring the rich over the poor or men over women, held everyone accountable for their own actions in the public square, slavery would not have existed.


Deuteronomy 24:7 says: “If someone kidnaps a fellow Israelite, either to make him a slave or sell him, the kidnapper must be killed. You must get rid of the evil among you.”

Harsh Treatment

Exodus 21:26,27 says: “If a man hits his male or female slave in the eye, and the eye is blinded, the man is to free the slave to pay for the eye. If a master knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, the man is to free the slave to pay for the tooth.”

Runaway Servants

Deuteronomy 23:15-16 say: “If an escaped slave comes to you, do not hand over the slave to his master. Let the slave live with you anywhere he likes, in any town he chooses. Do not mistreat him.”

The New Testament speaks equally as strong against the kidnapping of human beings (which is the basis of slavery) as the Old Testament. Please read the Apostle Paul’s warning against false teaching in 1st Timothy 1:8-10 (NCV): “But we know that the law is good if someone uses it lawfully. We also know that the law is not made for good people but for those who are against the law and for those who refuse to follow it. It is for people who are against God and are sinful, who are unholy and ungodly, who kill their fathers and mothers, who murder, who take part in sexual sins, who have sexual relations with people of the same sex, WHO SELL SLAVES, who tell lies, who speak falsely, and who do anything against the true teaching of God.

“Perhaps the most compelling argument AGAINST SLAVERY in the New Testament is Paul’s letter to Philemon, in which the Apostle asks Onesimus (a fellow Christian) to free his Christian slave.


01. A paradox noted by Edlie Wong in her book “Neither Fugitive Nor Free” (2009), slave states had statutes that provided for slaves to sue for “wrongful enslavement”, based on slave laws that established “just subjection”, page 5 and 153 (
02. Ibid.
03. Elizabeth Key, Wikipedia (
04. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, “Racial Formation In The United States: From The 1960s To The 1990s 1 (1994); see also Howard Winant, Racial Conditions 13-21 (1994)”, page 1. (
05. Taunya Lovell Banks Dangerous Woman: Elizabeth Key’s Freedom Suit — Subjecthood And Racialized Identity in Seventeeth Century Colonial Virginia ( Specifically see, William M. Wiecek, The Origins of the Law of Slavery In British North America, 17 Cardozo L. Rev. 1711, 1755 n.157 (1996); supra note 2, at 1720-21. See also Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Virginia 333 (1975); supra note 95, at 127-29 (referring to treatment of servants during the boom period).
06. See United States v. Yazell, 382 U.S. 341, 361 (1966) (Black, J., dissenting) (explaining the common law rule). (
07. Taunya Lovell Banks Dangerous Woman: Elizabeth Key’s Freedom Suit — Subjecthood And Racialized Identity in Seventeeth Century Colonial Virginia (
08. Taunya Lovell Banks is the Jacob A. France Professor of Equality Jurisprudence at the University of Maryland School of Law where she teaches constitutional law, torts, and seminars on law in popular culture (film or literature), citizenship and critical race theory. (
09. Taunya Lovell Banks Dangerous Woman: Elizabeth Key’s Freedom Suit — Subjecthood And Racialized Identity in Seventeeth Century Colonial Virginia (
10. Sir Edward Coke, Lord Coke, “A systematic Arrangement Of Lord Coke’s First Institute Of The Laws Of England 322, § 187.123a (J.H. Thomas ed., 1836) [hereinafter Coke’s First Institute]’. See Taunya Lovell Banks Dangerous Woman: Elizabeth Key’s Freedom Suit — Subjecthood And Racialized Identity in Seventeeth Century Colonial Virginia (
11. Warren M. Billings, “The Old Dominion In The Seventeenth Century, A Documentary History Of Virginia, 1606-1689” (
12. Taunya Lovell Banks Dangerous Woman: Elizabeth Key’s Freedom Suit — Subjecthood And Racialized Identity in Seventeeth Century Colonial Virginia (
13. Ibid.
14. Today, strategies discouraging marriage is alive and well. The script is the same only the faces of the actors have changed. Star Parker, Founder and President of the Center for Urban Renewal and Education (CURE) puts it this way: “Playing the race card instead of promoting free markets, discouraging marriage with a welfare state and a homosexual agenda, and hampering economic opportunity with complex tax codes, these liberals have caused the destruction of our African-American communities for almost 50 years.” (
15. Ibid.
16. William Waller Hening, “Virginia Slave Laws”, Digital History ID 71, 1662 (
17. Ibid.
18. Encyclopedia Virginia, Primary Resource, “An act for suppressing outlying slaves” (1691). “In April 1691, the General Assembly passed “An act for suppressing outlying slaves,” designed to deal with the problem of runaway slaves. It came in the wake of alleged slave conspiracies in, among other places, Westmoreland County in 1687 and 1688.” (
19. Taunya Lovell Banks Dangerous Woman: Elizabeth Key’s Freedom Suit — Subjecthood And Racialized Identity in Seventeeth Century Colonial Virginia (
20. Elizabeth Key-Grinstead, “Slavery Activist And Radical Woman”, WordPress.Com (
21. Patrick Jones is descendant of Elizabeth Key Grinstead, Frequent Traveler Ancestry, Sunday February 19th, 2012, (
22. Elizabeth Key, Wikipedia (


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