Chesapeake has a variety of stories that illuminate the American experience. Specific to the American Revolution, there is the Battle of Great Bridge which took place on December 9, 1775. This was a pivotal patriot victory in southern Hampton Roads. Following this Battle, Crown forces retreated to Norfolk. Within a month the Royal Governor Lord Dunmore, and those loyal to him, left Virginia altogether. One fascinating person related to the British exodus is Mary Perth.
Records indicate Mary was born in 1740. She was enslaved by John Willoughby of Norfolk County (now modern-day Chesapeake). It is believed that sometime during her enslavement, Mary learned to read and obtained a copy of the New Testament. By 1772, Mary began spreading the Good Word. With an infant daughter strapped to her back, Mary walked ten miles in the dark of night towards the Great Dismal Swamp to preach the gospel to Maroons, then return to the Willoughby property before morning.
In 1775 the American War for Independence came to Virginia. Mary, either driven by the Loyalist Willoughby family or in an attempt to self-emancipate under Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, found herself behind British Lines. After the British were defeated by Patriot Militia at the Battle of Great Bridge in December 1775, they fled north. Mary and her three daughters arrived in New York on a British vessel in 1776. Mary was able to extricate herself from the Willoughby family during the chaos of the Revolutionary War. Evidence suggests she may have done domestic work for the British Army until the end of the War in 1781. In 1783 Mary and her family relocated to Nova Scotia where they were considered legally free.
Life in Nova Scotia proved hard for Mary and her family. Representatives from the Sierra Leone Company promised a better life in Africa, with opportunities for land ownership, education, self-government, equality with whites, and religious fulfillment with Christian missions. In January 1792, the Perth family along with hundreds of others joined the Sierra Leone Company and sailed to Freetown, Sierra Leone. Here, Mary became a prominent businesswoman. She operated a boarding house, sold retail goods, and worked as the governor’s housekeeper. In Sierra Leone, Mary enjoyed individual political rights that many Black American women would not see until the mid-twentieth century. Mary’s story was recorded by a Scottish missionary to Sierra Leone in 1796 and published in a London magazine “Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle.” Mary likely passed away sometime after 1813. While little of her remains in the historical record, what is known about her shows a compelling story of self-determination, resilience, and resourcefulness.
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