Enslaved Woman Honored with Historical Marker in Yorktown

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Mary Aggie, an enslaved woman convicted of stealing from her master, is memorialized in a new historical marker for the lasting impact her case had on the legal system. (Courtesy York County)
Mary Aggie, an enslaved woman convicted of stealing from her master, is memorialized in a new historical marker for the lasting impact her case had on the legal system. (Courtesy York County)

The story of a remarkable enslaved woman is now being commemorated and shared through a new historical marker just outside of Colonial National Historical Park in Yorktown.

Mary Aggie was convicted of theft in York County in 1730 but granted an unprecedented pardon by the Virginia General Court, according to a recent York County press release.

Though Aggie’s theft conviction comes about in 1730, she first entered the court records two years earlier when she sued for freedom.

Coming before Lt. Governor William Gooch, the presiding judge in the case, Aggie was unsuccessful in winning her suit but did impress the judge with her piety and devotion to the Christian faith.

It was that devotion that allowed her to invoke “benefit of the clergy,” a provision in English common law that allowed literate and pious individuals to seek leniency in the case of first offenses, when she was found guilty of stealing from her owner two years later.

Gooch made the unusual decision to arrange for her pardon under this statute, which until that time had only ever been applied to free white men.

Aggie was eventually sold out of state to meet the terms of her pardon, but she made a lasting impression on the Virginia legal system. By 1732, the colony officially modified the law so women and people of all races could take advantage of the “benefit of the clergy” provision.

In honor of Aggie’s legacy, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources recently installed a historical marker detailing her unprecedented influence, located off Goosley Road and adjacent to the Colonial National Historical Park in Yorktown.

The York County Historical Museum, York County Historical Committee and James Weldon Johnson School Reunion Committee sponsored the dedication ceremony for the marker, which was held on Dec. 10 in York Hall.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Tom Shepperd Jr., Historical Museum President Bonnie Karwac, Historical Committee Chairman John Frankenburg, Historical Committee member Sherman Hill and Colonial National Historical Park Deputy Superintendent Paul Carson all spoke on the occasion of the dedication.