MONTROSS, Va. (GNS) -- The history books have forgotten Robert Carter III when they tell of the time in the nation's history before slavery ended.
But a twilight ceremony featuring African drums and a black choir Sunday brought 1,000 here, black and white, to honor a little-known man who had the courage to free his 500 slaves 72 years before the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.
Carter once was the owner of this rolling country estate. His act is the largest private emancipation ever recorded and a testament to the notion that one man alone can make a difference.
"Slavery is such a blight on our history for both African-Americans and white Americans, yet here is one instance of an individual who acted on principle," said local businessman Frank Delano, who organized the event. "It's something both blacks and whites can be proud of."
There are untold numbers of descendants of Carter, his former slaves or both, yet few have heard of him or his act of conscience 200 years ago.
"I didn't know any thing about it until a few weeks ago," said Tom Arnest, a Carter descendant who lives on part of the old Carter estate.
Yet in his time in Colonial Virginia, Carter was almost as politically powerful as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, and certainly richer.
He owned 16 plantations and 70,000 acres; companies involved in shipping, manufacturing, banking and land. He had a town house in Williamsburg and a county estate here at Nomini Hall. He was a politician, musician, writer, scientist and artist. Like many of his class, he owned slaves.
But Carter, deeply influenced by the new anti-slavery ideas of the Baptist Church, became convinced that slavery was "contrary to the principles of religion and justice," court records say.
At that time the Abolitionists Movement was beginning to emerge, and in 1782, Virginia passed a law allowing slave owners to free slaves under certain conditions.
"He acted at the only possible moment he could have," said John Barden, a Duke University historian. "He probably could not have done this 10 years before or 10 years later."
Carter arranged that no more than 30 of his slaves would be freed in any one year. The youngest would be freed when they reached 21, those over 45 were freed immediately. Under these terms, slaves were freed annually up to 1812, eight years after Carter's death.
These individual emancipations were recorded in county courthouses near his plantations, but Carter's act essentially was a private one. And it was not popular with other slave owners who feared unrest.
"He was viewed as a traitor to his class," said University of Maryland historian Ira Berlin.
The new publicity surrounding the emancipation is generating dozens of calls form people who think the may be descended from those list in the Carter emancipation records - which included people with the names Burke, Dial, Gumby, Puss, Tosspot and Single.
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