The story of Elizabeth Key Grinstead is one of the most fascinating in our history. Like many slaves, Key Grinstead was the product of an interracial union; her mother was black and her father was white. She herself was considered a slave and was traded several times before suing for her freedom in an English court in Virginia. She was 19 years old when she sued, and was married by common law to William Grinstead; they had a young son. She won her case on the first try on the argument that her father was a free Englishman and she was a baptized Christian. The case was appealed and overturned, but she continued to pursue the matter and eventually won freedom for herself and her son.
Key Grinstead’s was a precedent-setting case leading, sadly, to a new law in Virginia. English common law had held for centuries that the status of a child followed the status of the father. As a result of Key Grinstead’s suit, Virginia passed a law changing established English common law, making the status of the mother the primary factor in the status of the child. This established the principle known as partus sequitur ventrem, which greatly aggravated and elongated the institution of slavery in the colonies, and eventually America. Her court ruling has been transcribed and is available online.
Written by: Anna Belle Pfau
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