The Lionization of Lott Cary
Dec. 12, 1995
In the nineteenth century, the story of a one time Richmond slave named Lott Cary inspired a great deal of interest.He was lionized and made a celebrity. To the champions of numerous causes and ideas, he became a model. The three groups of people that most shaped the narrative of his life were slave-owners, Baptists, and colonizers. In his interaction with these three groups, he made a favorable impression, and inspired their praise. Few former slaves were lauded by white society in nineteenth century America. Abolitionist societies lionized several former slaves in the 1800's, but the groups that praised Cary were not radical. This paper examines the life of Lott Cary as a product of the constructions of these groups, and reflects on the spirit of his biographers.
It is more accurate to speak of the stories of Lott Cary, than of "his story." He was a slave, first, then free. After a religious conversion, he became Lott Cary the Baptist minister.In cooperation with the First Baptist Church of Richmond, the American Baptist Board of Foreign Missions, and the Richmond African Baptist Missionary Society (which he had a part in forming) he became the first American Baptist missionary to Africa. Also sponsoring his travel to Africa, the American Colonization Society considered him a model colonist. At the time of his death, at the age of forty-nine, he was the acting Governor of the Colony of Liberia.1
Cary was born on a plantation outside of Richmond, Virginia and was later sent to work in a Richmond tobacco factory. In a "sketch" of Cary's life that was written in 1835 by Ralph Randolph Gurley, Cary was praised as an ideal worker, before and after he purchased his freedom and the freedom of his family. In explaining that Cary paid $850 for the freedom of his family in 1813, Gurley comments:
The manner in which he obtained this sum
of money to purchase himself and children,
reflects much credit on his character. It
will be seen from the salary he received
after he was free, and which he relinquished
for the sake of doing good in Africa,
that his services at the warehouse were
highly estimated, but of their real value
no one except a dealer in tobacco can form
an idea. Notwithstanding the hundreds of
hogsheads that were committed to his charge,
he could produce any one the instant it was
called for; and the shipments were made
as no person, white or black, has equaled
in the same situation.2
Gurley goes on to explain that, because of such diligent and valuable work, Cary was often rewarded by his master with five-dollar notes. He was also permitted to collect and sell small bags of waste tobacco for his own profit. With this money, he bought his freedom.
Although it is possible that some slave owners wanted other slaves to gain freedom as Cary did, the greater ideal in this case, the most profitable one for slave owners, was the ideal of the hard-working slave. For most slaves, no amount of hard work could have earned a legitimate freedom, but freedom was just the incentive for the work. The myth being popularized was that a hard-working slave could earn freedom. Alongside this myth of social mobility for slaves was the implication that if a hard working slave could prosper, then unprosperous slaves must not have been hard-working. A logical outcome of the acceptance of this myth is that both whites and blacks, slave-owners and slaves come to think of the majority of slaves as lazy and, collectively, inferior.
One piece of Gurley's account of Cary's slave career is very interesting. At the bottom of a page he comments:
It is said, that while employed at the
warehouse, he often devoted his leisure
time to reading, and that a gentleman,
on one occasion, taking up a book which
he had left for a few moments, found it
to be "Smith's Wealth of Nations."3
While Gurley leaves the fact of the story open, the image of Cary as a good reader, and generally a person of advanced intellect, functioned along with the hard work idea. To slaves, it promised an ideal of self development as if, again, freedom from slavery could be earned through merit. To slave owners, the image here was of an exception, a rarity. The Gurley biography was published in 1835, four years after Nat Turner's rebellion, and because Nat Turner was also a reading slave, intelligence was probably still closely associated with threat.Cary was portrayed as an unusual case, and this implied that threat was also unusual. Like in the popular ante-bellum amusement of the freak show, the two-headed cat or the bearded lady or the intelligent slave were curious (and profitable) interest pieces, and not to be afraid of.
Hard work and intelligence seem to be the two qualities that were most esteemed by slave-owners, but this was a deceptiveand a distorted lionization. Cary's hard work model implied a general laziness among slaves, and his image as a very intelligent slave was presented in a way that emphasized exception, and a more common stupidity. This ideal, as is often the case with ideals, served to reinforce to status quo for slaves, because it was presented more as a lamentation than a hope.
As a convert to Christianity, and as a Baptist minister once free, Cary was no longer legally bound to servitude,and submission took on a new meaning. Among Baptists, there was an emphasis on cooperative submission to God, coupled with the ideal of spiritual, if not political, equality. This spiritual equality is expressed in the Galatian epistle:
For ye are all the children of God by
faith in Christ Jesus. For as many
of you as have been baptized into Christ
have put on Christ. There is neither
Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond
nor free, there is neither male nor
female: for ye are all one in Christ
In submission to God, and under this spiritual equality, Cary and other African-American Baptists began to interact with white Richmond Baptists.
Richmonder William Crane was a white Baptist Deacon at the First Baptist Church of Richmond. Originally from New Jersey, he moved to Richmond with his wife in 1811. Historian Sandy D. Martin comments that "Crane's entire life was marked by a strong missionary interest and a benevolent, though not abolitionist, concern for Afro-Americans."5 Crane helped Cary (and other slaves and former slaves) to become involved in organizations dominated by whites. He formed a small school for black men in 1815. Out of this small school, the Richmond African Missionary Society was formed. A book published in 1880 and entitled The First Century of the First Baptist Church of Richmond, VA gave credit to William Crane and his brother James for the formation of the Society, and mentioned Cary and his partner missionary Colin Teage only as beneficiaries of the brothers' work.6 However, other sources gave Cary, Teage, and the other students more credit in the formation and leadership of the group. William Crane himself gave Cary and Teage credit for the formation of the Society in a letter writtenin 1819 to the Baptist General Missionary Convention. He wrote of Cary and Teage:
Ever since the missionary subject has been
so much agitated in this country, these two
brethren, associated with many others, have
been wishing they could, in some way, aid
their unhappy kindred in Africa; and I suppose
you have heard of their having formed a missionary
society for this sole purpose.7
A history of the First Baptist Church written in 1955, the 175th anniversary history, showed the group as a result of the interests of both teachers and students.8 The view most portrayed by more recent sources is summarized in Sandy D. Martin's book Black Baptists and African Missions, published in 1989. According to Martin, Cary deserves much more credit. She writes:
Crane was elected President (probably
ceremonial and to legitimate the
organization in the slave society
of Virginia) and corresponding
secretary. But Cary, elected recording
secretary, played the larger role in
making the missionary program a success.9
Martin is probably right. By his willingness to let others (i.e. Crane and other whites) get most of the credit for his work, he made it more likely for white society to accept him. He worked through the channels of power in ante-bellum Richmond.
In spiritual equality, Cary was willing to cooperate and serve. These qualities were the foundation of his example to Baptists. The sketch of Cary's life written by Gurley began with the story of his conversion:
The Rev. Lott Cary was born a slave,
near Richmond, Virginia, and was early
hired out as a common laborer in that
city, where, for some years, he remained,
entirely regardless of religion, and much
addicted to profane and vicious habits.
But God was pleased to convince him of the
misery of a sinful state, and in 1807, he
publicly professed his faith in the Saviour,
and became a member of the Baptist Church.10
Cary had a model conversion story. It expressed cooperation with God's plan of salvation, and an energetic response to spiritual vocation. He became a preacher, serving according to his divine call. Gurley quoted a correspondent as saying, "In preaching, notwithstanding his gramatical inaccuracies,he was often truly eloquent."11 Also quoted is a "distinguished Minister of the Presbyterian Church" who said to Gurley: "A sermon which I heard from Mr. Cary, shortly before he sailedfor Africa, was the best extemporaneous sermon I ever heard."12 As he worked hard and well for slave-owners, he worked hard and well in the church.
Eventually the same call that led him to convert and to do the work of preaching, led him to go to Africa. He went to Liberia as a Baptist missionary and established Providence Baptist Church, "the first Baptist church of missionary origin on the continent of Africa."13 One of the organizations that supported his trip was the American Colonization Society. Many white Americans, in slaveholding and non-slaveholding states, saw "colonization" (the return of African-Americans to Africa) as a perfect solution to slavery and other "race problems."They helped to finance the travel of many former slaves.Once in Africa, Cary was portrayed by the Society as a model colonist.
Gurley's account of Cary's life was printed as an appendixto a biography of the life of Jehudi Ashmun, a colonial agent in Liberia. It stated that Cary was one of the earliest emigrants to Liberia, and its narrative of his time there is evidence of his lionization by colonizers. In a glowing portrayal, Gurley described the ideal colonist that Cary both was and represented:
On his arrival in Africa he saw before him
a wide and interesting field, demanding
various and energetic talents, and the most
devoted piety. His intellectual ability,
firmness of purpose, unbending integrity,
correct judgement, and disinterested benevolence,
soon placed him in a conspicuous station, and
gave him wide and commanding influence.14
This statement shows that the exemplary qualities emphasized still include hard work, intelligence, and cooperation, but submission (except submission to God) is less emphasized. Words such as "commanding," "judgment," and "influence" are words that suggest power and authority. To the colonizers, former slaves were fit for leadership in Africa, though not for citizenship in America.
This opportunity for leadership and power was emphasized by the Society in recruiting former slaves to emigrate. Cary was quoted as saying to a church member in Richmond:
I am an African, and in this country,
however meritorious my conduct, and respectable
my character, I cannot receive the credit due
to either. I wish to go to a country where I
shall be estimated by my merits, not by my
complexion; and I feel bound to labor for my
Many African-Americans surely shared this sentiment. In 1822, while defending the colony from "exasperated natives," he wrote in a letter that: "There never has been an hour or a minute, no, not even when the balls were flying around my head, when I could wish myself again in America."16 This biography sounds like a travel brochure for American slaves. He was exemplified for his hard work, intelligence, leadership, and heart-felt desire to emigrate.
With slave owners, Baptists, and Colonizers, Cary's story was lifted up for different reasons, and the biographical information that has been passed down reflects these purposes. Most of what was written on him took shape after his death, and the layers of story together construct our vision of him. We end up learning more about the biographers than about Cary. Slave-owners idealized his hard work and his intelligence, but as exceptional traits. As such they perpetuated oppressive social myths. As a Baptist, Cary fulfilled the ideals of cooperative submission under Christ, a willingness to work through the channels of church influence, and an energetic response to vocation. His acceptance among Baptists calls attention to a growing conception of spiritual equality within the Christian community of the time. To colonizers, Cary represented the ideal immigrant to Africa because he brought needed skills, a willingness to labor, and intelligent leadership. It is not really his qualities that change, but the qualities required of his circumstances. Cary's adaptabilitymay really have been his most valuable skill. No matter where he was or what he was doing, he was highlighted by somebody. Gurley describes this trend by saying that: "Though naturally diffident and retiring, his worth was too evident to allow of his continuance in obscurity."17 That seems to have been the case all along.
Baker, Robert A. The Southern Baptist Convention and Its People
1607-1972. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1974.
Brackney, William Henry. The Baptists. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood
Cauthen, Baker J. Advance: A History of Southern Baptist Foreign
Missions. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1970.
Gurley, Ralph Randolph. The Life of Jehudi Ashmun [with a brief
sketch of the life of the Rev. Lott Cary] Washington:
James C. Dunn, 1835.
Martin, Sandy D. Black Baptists and African Missions. Macon,
GA: Mercer University Press, 1989.
Tupper, Henry Allen ed. The First Century of The First Baptist
Church of Richmond, Virginia. Richmond: Carlton McCarthy,
White, Blanche Syndor. First Baptist Church Richmond 1780-1955.
Richmond: Whittet and Shepperson, 1955.