Clarissa of Jefferson, a Black Woman’s Fight for Freedom

RCHS Publication 17, Spring 1981

Clarissa’s legal fight for her freedom started in April of 1805 and was to last for at least two years.

On April 2, 1805, the court ordered William Edwards to give bond to permit Clarissa to appear at the next court when she was to pursue her appeal for her freedom. The court further ordered that Clarissa “be treated with humanity” by William Edwards in the mean time.

William Edwards must not have taken any action by this court order, for on July 4, 1805, the court again ordered William to give bond, in the amount of one thousand dollars, to permit Clarissa, “who has sued him in this court for her freedom”, to appear before the court during the proceedings of her suit against him. Again, the court ordered William to treat her with humanity.

The next court entry. concerning this suit was on October 7, 1806, fifteen months after William was last ordered to give bond for the assurance of her appearance in court. The court entry for this date reads, “Clarissa vs. Wm. Edwards – False Imprisonment.”

In this particular case, the jury granted a mistrial to the defendant, Wm. Edwards.

During the following session of court, on January 7, 1807, William Edwards and Clarissa, along with their attorneys came into court where Clarissa was again suing him for false imprisonment. The jury found the defendant “not guilty as charged in the plaintiff’s declaration above, and that the said plaintiff is the slave of him, the said defendant.” An appeal was “prayed and granted.” On the same day, January 7, in a separate entry, it was recorded that Alexander Moore, a witness for the plaintiff was called but did not appear and therefore “forfeited agreeably to an act of the General Assembly.” Was this the appeal that was granted by the court? Unfortunately there are no further entries in the county court records concerning the case of Clarissa and William Edwards, but the story of Clarissa is not over yet.

On July 1, 1810, O.M. Benge sold to a Clarissa Boushane, Lot #122 in the town of Jefferson for two dollars. In the 1810 census for Rutherford County a Clarissa Beshano was recorded as residing, as a head of household, in the town of Jefferson. She was at least 45 years old and had one slave, according to the census. The County Court Minute Books for Rutherford County reveal that Clarissa bought two more lots in Jefferson on October 8,
1812; one from O.M. Benge and lot #124 from William Locke.

In a report, dated 1813, on improved lots in the town of Jefferson, Clarissa appears again as “Clarese Bushoug, a woman of color from one of the French Islands.” Is this the same Clarissa who six years ago brought William Edwards into court to sue him for her freedom? If so, how did she finally gain her freedom? Could a settlement between Clarissa and Wm. Edwards have taken place out of court, with Clarissa gaining her freedom and taking up residence in the town of Jefferson where she could have
found work in an ordinary: or some other business? Without further
documentation, the answers to these and other questions will remain

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