Elizabeth Key

As the 364th anniversary of the first woman of African and White ancestry to sue for her freedom and win recently passed, it’s fitting we learn about her story!  Elizabeth Key (Grinstread) was born in 1630 and died January 20, 1665.  Her parents were an African enslaved woman named Martha and a white plantation owner and Newport News legislator named Thomas Key.

At the age of six, she was transferred to a wealthy tobacco planter, Humphrey Higgens.  Shortly after her father died.  Thomas Key had arranged so that she would be freed by the age of 15.  Higgens was supposed to be her guardian and Elizabeth was to be treated like family and freed at age 15.  However, at the age of 10, Elizabeth’s indenture was transferred to John Mottram who enslaved her for an additional 10 years after she was 15. In 1650, John Mottram brought over indentured servants from England, including William Grinstead.

Key and Grinstead began a relationship and eventually had a child, whom they named John, but were not allowed to legally marry.  In 1655, John Mottram died and Elizabeth sued the estate for the freedom of her and her child, for they were classified as property of the estate.  At this point, William Grinstead, now finished with his indentured servitude, was an attorney and took the lawsuit upon himself for Elizabeth and their child.  They sued on the basis that Elizabeth practiced Christianity and both her child’s and her own father were white.  At the time, it was English law that a Christian could not be enslaved.  You also would take the status of your father.  Therefore, since Elizabeth’s father and the child’s were free, they were as well.  The court ruled in her favor, but then an appeal court found that she was not free because, she was a “Negro”.  William filed a petition for Elizabeth and their son and in the end, the court ordered for their freedom and that she be paid back in corn and clothing for her 10 lost years.  In 1656 William and Elizabeth legally got married.

Elizabeth Key’s courage and support from her husband to stand up for herself and what is right is admirable, and should encourage us to continue to fight for equality, for ourselves and others!


Madelyn Rempel, Project RACE Kids President

Photo Credit: https://globalwomenshistory.com/2020/07/21/july-21-1656/