Lott Cary

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Lott Cary

Lott Cary (also in records as Lott Carey) (1780 – November 10, 1828) was an American Baptist minister and lay physician, who was instrumental in the founding of the Colony of Liberia in the 1820s in Africa. Born into slavery in Charles City County, Virginia, he purchased his freedom and that of his children at the age of 33 after saving money from being hired out in Richmond.

When he migrated to Liberia in 1821, he was one of the first black American missionaries, as well as the first American Baptist missionary, to Africa. He established its first church, founded schools for natives, and helped lead the colony.

Early life and education[edit]

In 1780 Lott Cary was born into slavery and humble surroundings in Charles City County, Virginia, on the plantation of John Bowry.[1]

In 1804, his master, a planter and Methodist minister, hired Cary out as a young man in Richmond, about 25 miles away. He was hired out by the year at the Shockoe tobacco warehouse.[2]

In 1807 Cary joined the First Baptist Church of Richmond, originally a congregation of both whites and blacks, free and slave. During the Great Awakening and religious revivals, Baptist and Methodist preachers recruited many slaves into their congregations. He was baptised by its pastor, John Courtney.[1] Beginning his education by learning to read the Bible, Cary later attended a small school for slaves. Its twenty young men were taught by Deacon William Crane. He had come from Newark, New Jersey in 1812, opened a shoe store and joined the First Baptist Church. Crane's students met three evenings each week to learn reading, writing, arithmetic, and the Bible.[2]

As he became educated, Cary rose from working as a common laborer to become a shipping clerk and supervisor of tobacco workers in a warehouse along Tobacco Row in Richmond. Because of his diligence and valuable work, Cary was often rewarded by his master with five-dollar bills from the money he earned. He was also permitted to collect and sell small bags of waste tobacco for his own profit.[1]

Freedom and career[edit]

In 1813, Cary's first wife died. With money he had earned, that year Cary purchased his own freedom and that of his two children for $850.[1] As a free man, he continued to be both industrious and frugal. He and his family stayed in Richmond; many jobs were available and there was a growing free black community. In 1813 Cary became an official Baptist minister. He also became a lay medical practitioner while in Richmond.[1]

In 1815, he and a colleague named Collin Teague helped form the African Missionary Society in Richmond.[1]

American Colonization Society[edit]

In the early 19th century, about 2 million African Americans lived in the United States, of whom 200,000 were free persons. In 1816, Virginia politician Charles Fenton Mercer and the Reverend Robert Finley established the American Colonization Society (ACS), with the goal of enabling former slaves to emigrate to Africa and establish a colony there. Although by this time most enslaved and free blacks were native born in the United States, often for generations, some members of the ACS thought the goal represented a kind of "repatriation" of blacks to Africa.

The Society was supported by a paradoxical coalition of philanthropists, members of the clergy and abolitionists, and slaveholders. Those favoring abolition wanted to free enslaved blacks and provide them with the chance to go to Africa. The slaveholders feared the presence of free blacks in a slave society and wanted to expel them from the South and the United States.

The ACS planted the colony of Liberia on the coast in West Africa in 1819.[1] Cary was among numerous free blacks who became interested in this movement. Most free blacks, however, as native to the United States, wanted no part of expatriation. They believed that, like European Americans, their roots were in the US. They wanted to enjoy the rights of citizens and free people in the country where they had many ties.

Colony of Liberia[edit]

By 1821, Cary had accumulated a sum to pay for his and his wife's expenses for transportation to the new colony of Liberia on the African coast. He was giving up his own property, purchased in Henrico County, and a good income.[1]

"When asked why he would leave a community in which he was respected and led a comfortable life, he replied: 'I am an African, and in this country, however meritorious my conduct, and 'respectable' my character, I cannot receive the credit due to either. I wish to go to a country where I shall be estimated by my merits, not by my complexion; and I feel bound to labor for my suffering race."[1]

His work in Liberia was supported by the First Baptist Church of Richmond, the American Baptist Foreign Missions Society, and the African Baptist Missionary Society of Richmond, of which he was a co-founder. Cary became the first black American missionary to Africa.[1]

In the new colony, Cary served the leadership as a pastor, counselor, and physician. His second wife died of disease shortly after they arrived in Liberia. In its November 5, 1825 article about the colony and Cary's life, the New York Observer noted that Cary had lost his third wife, "the daughter of Richard Sampson, from Petersburg, Virginia."Wikisource-logo.svg "Cary, Lott". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. 1900. 

After arrival, Cary quickly established Providence Baptist Church in Monrovia, which became the capital and was located on Cape Montserado. In 1822 he helped mount the defense of the new colony against 1500 native Africans.[1] He also founded several schools to teach Christianity to natives in the interior. In 1826, he was elected vice-agent of the ACS.

Early life in the Colony of Liberia was harsh and dangerous. Native Africans resisted the colonization and expansion by the American settlers, which resulted in many armed conflicts between the groups. The colonists were also at risk of attack from slave traders, who would have sold the blacks into slavery. In addition, they suffered disease until the colony could develop betrer housing and sanitation.

In August 1828, Cary became acting governor of Liberia. He had been designated as successor by the previous governor Jehudi Ashmun before his death. Later that year Cary was wounded in an accident and died two days later on November 10, 1828. He and seven companions were fatally injured by an explosion while they were making bullets.

Legacy and honors[edit]

Cary's life has inspired United States and Liberian school children. Starting life as a common slave in a rural county, he became educated and used his strong work skills and initiative to work to buy his and his children's freedom. He became both a Baptist minister and a lay physician, and helped found a new nation.

  • His mission and memory have been kept alive through the work of the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention, based in Washington, DC.
  • In Richmond, Virginia: Cary Street and the Carytown shopping district were named for him.
  • Lott Cary Road in Charles City County was named in his honor.
  • The Lott Cary House is a designated state historical landmark and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.[3] Today the much altered house is used as a private residence. Virginia historical marker, V27-Lott Cary Birthplace, notes the site at the intersection of Virginia State Highways 155 and 602. Little is left of the original 18th-century house. The original structure was likely Bowry's plantation house, and Cary would have been born in nearby slave quarters. The site is marked to represent the man and his achievements.[1]
  • The Board of Supervisors of neighboring James City County, Virginia declared March 21, 2001, to be "Lott Cary Day" in his honor.
  • Careysburg, on the outskirst of Monrovia, was named for him.[1]
  • Providence Baptist Church in Monrovia, Liberia celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2001.
  • In 2015 Cary was posthumously honored as one of the Library of Virginia's "Strong Men & Women in Virginia History".[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission Staff (April 1980). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination: Lott Cary Birth Site" (PDF). 
  2. ^ a b Simmons, William J., and Henry McNeal Turner. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising. GM Rewell & Company, 1887. p506-509
  3. ^ National Park Service (2010-07-09). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 
  4. ^ "Strong Men & Women in Virginia History: Lott Cary (ca. 1780–November 10, 1828)". Library of Virginia. Retrieved 2 March 2015. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Gurley, Ralph Randolph. Life of Jehudi Ashmun, Washington, DC: 1835.
  • Russell, John H. The Free Negro in Virginia, 1619-1865, Baltimore: 1913.
  • Taylor, James Barnett. Biography of Elder Lott Cary, Late Missionary to Africa, Baltimore: 1837.
  • White, Blanche Sydnor, compiler. First Baptist Church, Richmond, 1780-1955.

External links[edit]

Includes a biography of Lott Carey in the New York Observer of November 5, 1825.