“His Intelligence from the Enemy’s Camp were Industriously Collected…” (Mini Episode: James Armistead Lafayette)


James Armistead Lafayette (image credit:  Virginia Historical Society)


“This is to certify that the bearer by the name of James has done essential services to me while I had the honor to command in this state. His intelligence from the enemy’s camp were industriously collected and most faithfully delivered. He perfectly acquitted himself with some important commissions I gave him and appears to me entitled to every reward his situation can admit of.” — Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, 1784

In the spring of 1781, General George Washington sent the French general, the Marquis de Lafayette, to Virginia to thwart the advancing British army.   An enslaved man by the name of James Armistead responded to the marquis’s call for spies.  Serving at the table of British General Charles Cornwallis, Armistead overheard valuable information that helped the Americans win the Revolutionary War.  Armistead was eventually granted his freedom for his service.  Once a free man, he added “Lafayette” to his name.

This episode is dedicated to Belmont Station Elementary’s fourth grade classes, who studied Virginia history this year.  You are STARS!

Recommended Reading

Young listeners to today’s episode might enjoy Black Heroes of the American Revolution.

“I would take my child and hide in the mountains.” (Slave Narratives and the Pursuit of Literacy, Part 1)

Bethany Veney;
image credit:  Public Domain


The next thing I recall as being of any particular importance to me was the death of my mother, and, soon after, that of Master Fletcher. I must have been about nine years old at that time.

Master’s children consisted of five daughters and two sons. As usual in such cases, an inventory was taken of his property (all of which nearly was in slaves), and, being apportioned in shares, lots were drawn, and, as might chance, we fell to our several masters and mistresses.

In 1740, the colony of South Carolina passed a law making it illegal to “teach or cause any slave or slaves to be taught to write,” punishable by a fine of “one hundred pounds, current money.” Within 100 years, at least twelve states would pass statutes proscribing the literacy or education of enslaved or free blacks.

Nevertheless, untold numbers of enslaved Americans did learn to read and write. At times, they had the support and sanction of the white people closest to them. That was case with poet Phillis Wheatley, the first African American to publish a volume of poetry.

Sometimes, they learned from other enslaved or free people of color.

And others had to scheme and strategize their way to literacy. Perhaps the most famous person to do this was the internationally acclaimed orator and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, whose memoir became a bestseller.

Bethany Veney’s memoir is much less famous, but still an important contribution to our understanding of slavery.  She is featured in today’s episode, the first in a series on enslaved Americans’ pursuit of literacy.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself by Harriet Jacobs on Apple Podcasts

The Narrative of Bethany Veney: A Slave Woman

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself

University of North Carolina’s North American Slave Narratives collection