Object of the Month

"They belonging to themselves": Minda Campbell Redeems Her Family from Slavery

Letter from Minda Campbell to Joseph Story Fay, 28 August 1860

Letter from Minda Campbell to Joseph Story Fay, 28 August 1860


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  • by Susan Martin, Manuscript Processor and EAD Coordinator

    In this letter to Joseph Story Fay, Minda Campbell, an African-American woman living in Savannah, Georgia, listed the names of her children and grandchildren that Fay had "in his care." Campbell's children were apparently slaves owned by Fay, and this letter documents her ongoing efforts to free the members of her family held in bondage. The letter, written on 28 August 1860 in response to an inquiry from Fay, is part of the Fay-Mixter family papers at the MHS.

    Joseph Story Fay

    Joseph Story Fay was originally from Cambridge, Mass., but had moved to Savannah in 1838 to make his fortune in the cotton business. During the antebellum years, he often discussed the issue of slavery in correspondence with relatives in Massachusetts. Although willing to hire other people's slaves, he initially balked at owning them himself—not from moral scruples but primarily because of the inconvenience. He eventually rationalized the practice and, beginning in 1844, purchased a number of slaves, possibly including two of Minda Campbell's daughters.

    By the late 1850s, civil war looked increasingly likely, and Fay was one of many who saw it coming. He had been spending more and more time in Massachusetts each year, and may have written to Campbell to make arrangements for his slaves before his permanent relocation to the North. The location of his letter to Campbell is unknown.

    Minda Campbell and Her Daughters

    The story of Minda Campbell and her family is difficult to piece together because records are so scarce. She was about 70 years old when she wrote this letter asking Fay to do "What you May think is Best under the circumstances." It's unclear if she was a free black woman at the time, but she had been a slave belonging to James Potter, a wealthy rice planter who owned large tracts of land on the Savannah River. Potter also owned Campbell's daughters Isabel (or Isabella) and Cornelia.

    The Fay-Mixter collection also includes the deeds, or bills of sale, for Isabel and Cornelia. These papers indicate that, in the early 1850s, James Potter sold Isabel for $300 and Cornelia—with her children—for $600 to auctioneer Thomas J. Walsh. On 2 September 1853, both deeds were transferred to an unidentified person, most likely Fay. While their names and ages don't match up exactly, these are the women listed in Campbell's letter. And scrawled in pencil on the back of each deed, probably by Walsh, is the phrase: "they belonging to themselves."

    When these deeds came to the MHS, they were enclosed in a paper with notes written by Fay in 1854 and 1858. The first note dates from the time Fay left the documents with his firm in Savannah "for safe keeping." The second note reads: "The enclosed Bills of Sale belong to Minda Campbell, and are of her children who she has bought from time to time, and now holds as free." Isabel and Cornelia were apparently free, or "belonging to themselves," by 1858, but the details are unclear. Their freedom may have been purchased by their mother or given by Fay, maybe even as early as 1853.

    James and Thomas Simms

    Minda Campbell had several other children. She dictated this letter to her oldest son, James M. Simms, who lived with her in Savannah. James was a free black man, having earned enough as a carpenter to buy his own freedom for $740 in 1857. He also taught himself how to read and eventually worked as a minister, freedmen's advocate, publisher, and politician. During Reconstruction, Simms was even appointed to a judgeship by the governor of Georgia, but was prevented from serving and removed from his seat by the next administration.

    Another of Campbell's sons was the famous Thomas Simms (or Sims), whose escape to Boston and subsequent return under the Fugitive Slave Act created a sensation in April 1851. Campbell is mentioned, though not by name, in records of the trial.

    Minda Campbell died on 20 January 1886, and newspapers across the country, from Vermont to South Carolina to California, reported her death, mentioning her status as Thomas Simms' mother. She and at least two of her children are buried in Laurel Grove South Cemetery, an African-American cemetery in Savannah.

    Further Reading

    Fay-Mixter family papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

    Jones, Jacqueline. Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

    Trial of Thomas Sims, on an Issue of Personal Liberty, on the Claim of James Potter, of Georgia, Against Him, as an Alleged Fugitive From Service: Arguments of Robert Rantoul, Jr. and Charles G. Loring, with the Decision of George T. Curtis, Boston, April 7-11, 1851. Boston: Wm. S. Damrell & Co., 1851.

    Witzell, Susan Fletcher. Joseph Story Fay: The Life of a Modest Man. [United States: Privately published, 2013].