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legal history, race, gender, slavery


Elizabeth Key, an African-Anglo woman living in seventeenth century colonial Virginia sued for her freedom after being classified as a negro by the overseers of her late master’s estate. Her lawsuit is one of the earliest freedom suits in the English colonies filed by a person with some African ancestry. Elizabeth’s case also highlights those factors that distinguished indenture from life servitude—slavery in the mid-seventeenth century. She succeeds in securing her freedom by crafting three interlinking legal arguments to demonstrate that she was a member of the colonial society in which she lived. Her evidence was her asserted ancestry—English; her religion, Christian; and the inability to be enslaved for life that stems from the first two statuses. These factors, I argue, determined who was the equivalent of white in seventeenth century Virginia.

Publication Citation

41 Akron Law Review 799 (2008).


Law and Race | Legal History