Ann Williams, Ann Maria Williams, Tobias Williams, & John Williams v. George Miller & George Miller Jr.

United States. Circuit Court (District of Columbia) - Washington (D.C.)

Claim for Freedom Made



Verdict for Petitioner May 1832

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Attorney for Plaintiff(s):



Over the four years that passed from the time she filed her freedom suit to when the case went to trial in the summer of 1832, Ann Williams lived independently, and to a large degree, as a free woman. The federal census in 1830 recorded her living near Miller's tavern in Ward 2 of Washington, D.C., as a free colored person with three others in the household: two young men and a young woman, likely her children, Tobias, John, and Ann Maria. Even the defendants' attorneys in their jury instructions conceded that George Miller had allowed her to live "at large." Armed with the certificate from the court stating she had filed her petition for freedom, and living on her own, Ann Williams could reasonably present herself as free while the suit dragged on.

The court repeatedly summoned both the tavern keeper George Miller and his son, George Miller Jr., to appear in court, but for years neither responded. Every six months, Williams' attorneys, Francis Scott Key and James Dunlop, filed another summons—January 1829, July 1831, February 1832—and the summonses went unanswered. Then on June 27, 1832, the attorneys discovered that the Millers had taken the twelve-year-old son of Ann Williams out of the District, presumably to sell him. They brought affidavits into the court about the impending sale and the court scheduled a jury trial.

Two weeks later, George Miller filed a single document in the case: a receipt for his purchase of a slave named Ann, 24 years old, on November 29, 1815, for $5. The timing of the purchase and the unusually low price of sale indicate that Ann Williams was without a doubt the enslaved woman who jumped out of Miller's tavern in late November 1815, rather than be sold south to Georgia. Known as "Anna" in several abolitionist tracts, Ann was featured prominently, though not named, in Jesse Torrey's A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery, published in 1817. Two of her children had been sold already, and she would never see them again. Torrey's account of Ann's actions depicted her as "frantic," desperate, and suicidal. She broke her back and arms in the fall, and some historians assumed she died as a result. Her petition for freedom thirteen years later calls into question these interpretations.

The court minutes of her trial provide the final proof that Ann Williams was Anna. Among the witnesses who testified on her behalf was William Gardner, who in 1819, refused to help put out a fire at Miller's tavern because he objected to Miller's role in aiding and abetting the slave trade. Two doctors were called to testify as well, the same doctors who treated her and the others in the F Street tavern: Dr. Benjamin King and Dr. W. Jones. Her fourth witness was Washington Boyd, U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia from 1808 to 1818, who lived on F Street opposite George Miller's tavern.

On July 2, 1832, the jury rendered a verdict for the plaintiff, Ann Williams, and her children. While the reasons the jury found in favor of Ann were not recorded in the minutes, we can surmise some of the reasons for the verdict. The jury may have determined that Ann Williams was brought into the District of Columbia in November 1815 to be sold in a violation of the Maryland Act of 1796. Under its terms, domestic slave traders could not import slaves into Maryland for the purpose of selling them in the state. Slaveholders with a "bona fide intention of settling" there could move from other states into Maryland, as long as they registered their enslaved laborers within one year of arrival as a resident. Under the 1783 and 1796 acts, slaveholders moving into Maryland had to certify that all of the enslaved people, including all of the mothers of enslaved children under three, had resided in the U.S. for at least three years. This provision was designed to prevent enslavers from using Maryland as a way station in the transatlantic slave trade—by arriving in a state that did not bar importation, then moving to Maryland and holding the enslaved there for later sale. Slaveholders could obtain an exemption to this provision, but they had to verify that the enslaved labor was not intended for sale. In the case of Ann Williams, neither Miller nor the slave trader had obtained an exemption. Ann Williams and her children were free.

This case summary was written and researched by William G. Thomas III, and edited by project scholars.