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Edith Cumbo


Colonial Williamsburg interpreter Emily James portrays Edith Cumbo.

  • Born to a free mother ca. 1735
  • Lives as a free black woman in Virginia
  • Found in court records in several counties

A Free Black Woman

Edith Cumbo is the head of her own household in Williamsburg, one of only a handful of free blacks living within the city limits about the time of the American Revolution.  

Cumbo was likely born in Charles City County, Virginia, several miles from Williamsburg. She is the daughter of Richard and Fortune Cumbo. Edith is not enslaved because her mother was a free woman when Edith was born. According to 18th-century Virginia law, a child born in the colony inherited the free or enslaved status of his or her mother. She grew up with her five brothers: Richard, Michael, Peter, Stephen, and Thomas.

Evidence in Court Records

From Charles City County, Edith Cumbo moved on to Halifax County, perhaps because one of her brothers is there. It is probably in Halifax that her son, Daniel Cumbo, is born, perhaps in the mid-1750s. In August 1769, the churchwardens of Antrim Parish in Halifax County present Edith to the Halifax County Court for having a child out of wedlock. The justices find her “not guilty, for reasons appearing to the court,” meaning that the court justices in Halifax declare Edith not guilty based on evidence presented to them at her trial that might have included the testimony of a midwife or other women.

Head of Her Own Household

Cumbo is a resident of Williamsburg proper by the late 1770s. By then her mother and father also have moved to the area and live in York County near Williamsburg. Richard, Michael, and Peter live in Charles City County; Stephen in James City County near Williamsburg; and Thomas and his wife and children in Halifax County, Virginia.

As a free black woman in the slave society of 18th-century Virginia before and after the Revolution, Edith Cumbo is independent and resourceful. She is unmarried, heads her own household, and works in and around Williamsburg. Although evidence for her occupation has not come to light, it is likely that Cumbo uses her housewifery skills to earn a living perhaps as a domestic servant, laundress, or seamstress. In June 1778, Edith Cumbo takes steps to protect her property and household when she takes Adam White to the York County Court, located in Yorktown, and sues him for trespass, assault and battery.

Attends Church in Williamsburg

Born in Virginia, Edith probably attends the parish church wherever she lives, perhaps including Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, at least once a month according to law. She likely can read some from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. She might also be familiar with Baptist preachers such as Moses and also Gowan Pamphlet who preach the New Light gospel.