Belinda Brown & Family

What we know about Belinda Brown, including the text on her gravestone here in the cemetery, comes mostly from the perspective of the Ball family, who saw her, like most of the people they enslaved, as extraordinarily loyal and devoted to the welfare of their enslavers.  The basic information the Balls relay here and in William Selwyn Ball’s memoir, written c. 1930, seems to be accurate, but there are notable gaps in the record.  

For instance, this is one of the few stones in the cemetery without birth or death dates, suggesting that the Balls either didn’t know when Belinda was born, or didn’t consider that information significant. Similarly, there is no direct mention on the stone or in William Selwyn Ball’s memoir of Belinda’s parents or children, though he mentions two marriages, and includes at the end of the volume a transcription of a letter sent by Belinda to William Selwyn’s sister Rebecca while Belinda was visiting her children in Richmond.   

What does seem clear is that Belinda worked as a nurse in several Ball family households, that she lived on the Ball property after the war, and that she had a family of her own, including husbands named Silas Pierson and John Brown, and children who were living in Richmond in 1892.  Finally, while William Selwyn Ball described Belinda as one of the Ball family’s loyal slaves, it is possible – though by no means  certain – that she was in fact a free woman, working for the Ball family in part so that she could stay close to enslaved kin. 

William Selwyn Ball relates that Belinda worked as a nurse, raising children in the families of Spencer Mottrom and Mary Dulany and William Waring and Dorothy McCabe Ball.  After William Waring and Dorothy’s oldest daughter Mary Gray Ball Judkins, beside whom Belinda is buried, died in 1858, Belinda also helped raise Mary’s son William Judkins.  William can be found living with his grandmother and aunt, Martha and Lucy Ball, in the 1860 census.  In 1870, the first year that formerly enslaved people appeared in census records as citizens rather than property, Belinda, 38, with the last name Johnson (which seems to have been her family name), shows up, living in a household that included Dorothy McCabe Ball and six of her seven surviving children.   

According to both official records and William Selwyn Ball’s account, Belinda had a first, prewar, marriage with a man probably named Silas Pierson (official records provide the last name Pierson; William Selwyn Ball provides the first name Silas).  William Selwyn notes that “they had a lovely ‘white people’s wedding’ and went with the family when they refugeed” south during the war.  However, “just before the close of the war,” Silas committed what William Selwyn saw as an act of “treacher[y]”: “he took the single wagon and horse and went around the neighborhood in Albemarle, begging for provisions for Miss Dolly [Dorothy McCabe Ball], and immediately set out for Washington, sold the horse and wagon in Culpeper Court House, and was never more seen.” 

In short, like many enslaved people before and during the war, Silas claimed his freedom by leaving his enslavers.  William Selwyn writes that Belinda, whom he calls “Beedy,” “was greatly grieved at her husband’s conduct and never wanted to see him again.” He does not seem to consider that Belinda might have been upset at Silas for leaving her behind rather than because he left the Balls (or took the horse and wagon). 

After Belinda returned to Fairfax County with Dorothy McCabe and family, she (like they) lived in one of the cabins built during the war as quarters for soldiers within a fort that was erected on the Ball property.  She also met and eventually married John Brown, whom William Selwyn called “a fine man, and suitable to her age.”  William Selwyn portrays Belinda as concerned about remarrying without first divorcing her first husband (it’s interesting to note that in the same postwar period Mary Lee Jones Beall, who lived nearby, was seeking a divorce from her long-estranged husband William; Belinda may have been aware of this). 

Apparently the Balls assured Belinda that “a law had annulled all slave marriages” (which was not the case; in fact, the Freedmen’s Bureau was recording marriages contracted during slavery to make them official), and she and John Brown married in 1870, soon after the census was taken – another place where the official record and William Selwyn Ball’s account coincides. 

Belinda and John Brown apparently lived in a cabin on the Ball property, possibly built by John, for the rest of her life.  Two letters, dated  1892 and 1894, preserved by William Selwyn’s sister Rebecca, who lived in Richmond with her husband, provide us the most direct access to Belinda’s own voice (though we still have to take into account that she was writing to a particular recipient, and that she apparently had to dictate her letters, though it appears that, at least in the case of the 1892 letter, her scribe was one of her own children). 

The 1892 letter finds Belinda staying at 1302 30th St. in Richmond, apparently the residence of one of her children, during a 3-week January visit.  While she expresses interest in seeing “Miss Rebecca” while she is in town (either again, or at all; it’s not clear; both women have been sick, and there’s some indication that Rebecca’s husband isn’t entirely comfortable with Belinda visiting), the main focus of Belinda’s visit seems to be her own family: her “dear children” and “kin folks here from the country.”  Belinda does not name the children she has been visiting in the letter (but mentions at least two, or maybe a child and his or her spouse), but she does say that she has “had a happy time” with them, even though she has been sick.

She also answers what was apparently an inquiry by Rebecca into her spiritual welfare, which probably included encouragement to formally join a church: “I am striving to be as good as I can, but you know the African race is not as bright as yours & of course there cannot be as much expected of them, but I am trying the best I know how, to live differently and feel that this is a change.” 

“But Confirmation is a very serious thing,” she continues, “I do not think it is the form but the feeling that makes us good, so I want to make sure that before I act – that – I am safe in doing so.”  This second sentence, which contains some fairly sophisticated theological reasoning (couched in language which, like the rest of the letter, suggests that Belinda and/or her amanuensis were comfortable communicating in a linguistic register similar to that used by the Balls), belies Belinda’s earlier statements about the capabilities of “the African race” – a reminder of just how complex the communication between these two women was.  Belinda seems willing to answer the inquiry, perhaps for the sake of maintaining a relationship with someone she believes means well, but she also clearly has her own well-considered ideas about her faith, and is comfortable asserting them, and following her own judgment about whether she should formally join a church. 

The second, 1894 letter is written from Woodbury, and there is no indication of who took Belinda’s dictation (though it appears that that person may have added some comments of his or her own in parentheses).  She reports that she is in “middling” health, and that “my own children & my neighbors are so kind and do not let me suffer for anything.  Miss Martha [William Selwyn’s wife] came over early Sunday and brought me fresh fish – hot green tea with real cream in it – & some of my own kind of corn bread made by her own dear hands, so you know I must have enjoyed it.” 

So it seems that the Balls did care for Belinda in her old age, just as she had cared for them in their youth, and during what was, in fact, a very difficult time for all of them after the war.  Still, questions remain about their relationship: when Belinda writes “my own children” does she mean the members of the Ball family she helped raise, or are they “my neighbors”? Do Belinda and/or John have children or stepchildren living in the area, and are they also participating in her care?  If so, what did they think of their mother’s relationship with her former enslavers, and, if they know about it, of their plan to bury her in the Ball family plot, “beside,” in William Selwyn Ball’s words, “her beloved Miss Mollie, whom she idolized”?  And when, exactly, did Belinda die?  William Selwyn records her death and burial, but, like the gravestone, does not provide a date. 

Finally, there is the tantalizing question of whether Belinda was, in fact, enslaved, at least in 1861.  William Selwyn records that, when after the war’s end Belinda “was visited by some of our Yankee neighbors with the information that she was now free and could be educated and have her own home,” “she dismissed them with scorn.  ‘I thank you,’ she said, ‘but I have always been free and have my own home, and that I am not educated is entirely my own fault.’” He seems to take this as a description of  Belinda’s feelings about her relationship with the Ball family despite her enslavement, but it’s possible that it reflected her legal status.    

Dennis, Dolly, and “Nurse Mary,” whom William Selwyn Ball identifies as Belinda’s siblings, all show up in the inventory of Mottrom Ball’s estate.  Unless she is listed under another name, Belinda does not. There is, however, a Belinda named among the people to be freed in Elizabeth Lee Jones’ will.  Since Belinda Johnson Pierson Brown was born c. 1832, ten years after Elizabeth Lee Jones died, she is almost certainly not that Belinda. She could, however, be that Belinda’s daughter.  In that case, she may have been a free woman who negotiated her employment by the Ball family in ways that allowed her to remain near enslaved kin. 

If such an arrangement existed, it’s possible that younger members of the Ball family, including William Selwyn, were not aware of it, and so simply saw “Bedie” as one more of the family’s loyal slaves.  An arrangement of this kind — and the events that secured the freedom of Belinda and/or her mother — could also shed additional light on the sources of Belinda’s loyalty to the Balls, to the extent it existed, as well as on the clear sense of independence that she exhibited, even in the highly mediated accounts we currently have of her life. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *