Abrams was a slave for fifty-three of the sixty-three years of his life. Born in 1791, he married Sarah and had two daughters, Emily and Frances. Manumitted on November 8, 1844, by Richmond commission merchant Joshua J. Fry, Abrams soon gained ownership of his wife, daughters, and six grandchildren, whom he freed on October 13, 1851. Although listed in the 1850 census as an unskilled laborer, Abrams commanded sufficient resources to free himself and his immediate relatives, purchase two building lots in Richmond's Madison Ward from Fry in 1845, erect a comfortable house for his family, and leave an estate valued at nearly $1,500 when he died. His journey from bondage to respectability in but a few years marked Abrams as a person of rare abilities and good fortune.
Abrams's death on June 4, 1854, was an ordinary event in the life of the city, but the African American community responded to it in extraordinary fashion. Black Baptists in Richmond, Manchester, Petersburg, and Fredericksburg raised money for a tombstone, fellow deacons inscribed it with an eloquent memorial, and a massive crowd attended his funeral. The outpouring illuminated the man and his community. His funeral, which attracted 8,000 mourners of both races, was one of the largest held in the city to that time, and it dwarfed those usually accorded public officials and business leaders. In death Abrams's importance to his fellow free blacks and slaves was fully manifested. By turning out in record numbers to honor one of their own, black Richmonders honored each other. By paying homage to an exemplary man who had been a slave for most of his life, they publicly repudiated racial mores and slave codes that crimped their lives and burdened their spirits.
1791 - Joseph Abrams is born enslaved.
1817 - Joseph Abrams joins the First Baptist Church in Richmond.
1818 - Archibald Batte sues a white man for breaking into his property but loses.
1841 - Joseph Abrams is a founding member and pioneer deacon of the First African Baptist Church in Richmond.
November 8, 1844 - Joseph Abrams is manumitted by the Richmond merchant Joshua J. Fry.
October 13, 1851 - Joseph Abrams frees his family after gaining ownership of them.
June 4, 1854 - Joseph Abrams dies. His funeral is the largest held in the city to that time.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
O'Brien, J. T., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Joseph Abrams (1791–1854). (2017, September 19). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Abrams_Joseph_1791-1854.
- MLA Citation:
O'Brien, John T. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Joseph Abrams (1791–1854)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 19 Sep. 2017. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: March 29, 2017 | Last modified: September 19, 2017