Fellow Travelers on the Road to Black Ned’s Forge by Turk McCleskey
On February 19 at noon, Turk McCleskey delivered a Banner Lecture entitled “Fellow Travelers on the Road to Black Ned’s Forge.”
Edward Tarr, known widely as “Black Ned,” became a blacksmith while enslaved in Pennsylvania. After purchasing his freedom, Tarr and his white wife moved to Timber Ridge, in modern Rockbridge County, Virginia, where his forge on the Great Wagon Road became a well-known landmark. In 1753, Tarr helped found the Timber Ridge Presbyterian Church. When he bought a 270-acre farm on Mill Creek in 1754, Tarr became the first free black land owner west of the Blue Ridge. The son of Tarr’s last master attempted to re-enslave him, but with the help of his neighbors, Tarr preserved his independence. Exceptional free persons of color, such as Edward Tarr, can be found in every region and in every period during the history of slavery. As Edward Tarr’s story illustrates, these were more than isolated individuals: by the coming of the American Revolution, they constituted a self-aware, cohesive set of lobbyists capable of wielding the rhetoric of political liberty to roll back the encroachments of racist laws. Ironically, however, the Revolution undercut the legal gains made by free persons of color in the 1760s.
Turk McCleskey is professor of history at Virginia Military Institute and the author of The Road to Black Ned's Forge: A Story of Race, Sex, and Trade on the Colonial American Frontier.