Rhonda Brace vividly remembers the afternoon she visited the family that once owned her six-time estranged grandfather, Jeffrey.
This is the kind of visit that makes your stomach ache if you think about it too much. But Rhonda went, with her mother and father, to meet the descendants of the Stiles family, still living in the house built in 1741 in Woodbury, Connecticut.
The house sits next to the even older red barn, built towards the end of the 17th century – one of the oldest in the state. This is where Jeffrey Brace worked as a slave, bought and held by widow Mary Stiles at the time of the Revolutionary War.
Rhonda Brace hoped that the descendants of Mary Stiles might have documents or artifacts shedding some light on Jeffrey Brace, who as a free man in 1810 wrote and published a memoir, The Blind African Slave,
“They had read the book,” Rhonda recalls. And while they didn’t have anything in the way of documentation, the Stiles family offered something much more visceral, she said.
“They actually took us down, my dad and I went – my mom wouldn’t go – we went down to what they believe to be the slave quarters of the house,” Rhonda Brace said. “It was, very, yeah…” Her voice trailed off. “But it was something just to be on the property.”
Rhonda Brace will be in Philadelphia at American Revolution Museum on the evening of Feb. 17 to talk about Jeffrey Brace — who fought in Washington’s Continental Army and was later released by the widow’s son, Benjamin Stiles — with academic Kari J. Winter.
It was Winter who revived Jeffrey Brace’s nearly lost tale, The Blind African Slave or, Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nicknamed Jeffrey Brace. It was republished in 2004 – nearly two centuries after it was published by an obscure Vermont printer before almost entirely disappearing.
Winter will deliver a lecture titled “Reclaiming Freedom: Race, Revolution, and the American Story of Jeffrey Brace,” followed by a conversation with Rhonda Brace and R. Scott Stephenson, CEO and President of the museum.
The museum has also just acquired a cache of nearly 200 documents related to the participation in the Revolutionary War of black soldiers, including Jeffrey Brace.
“What’s exciting about it is that it represents Jeffrey Brace,” Winter said, speaking of pension and payment records now in the museum’s collection. “It’s the first thing we have that we know was touched by her own hand.”
Winter, a professor of American studies at the University at Buffalo, said the erasure of Jeffrey Brace’s history was almost complete when she began her research in the 1990s. She met descendants of Brace living in Vermont and Connecticut who “knew nothing about it”.
But the story is unusual. For one thing, Jeffrey Brace was born in Africa and wasn’t captured by slavers until he was around 16 years old. The Blind African Slave contains first-person descriptions of Brace’s homeland, probably the Niger River valley in present-day Mali.
He was born around 1742 and captured “by the English”, he notes, around 1758. The English shipped him to Barbados where Brace was brutalized and bought off by an English sailor, Captain Isaac Mills. Brace received multiple wounds while fighting in the Seven Years’ War, and after a series of violent sales from one owner to another, it was purchased by “Widow Stiles” around 1768.
“It was a glorious time in my life, because the widow Stiles was one of the best women in the world; she possessed all the Christian virtues,” Brace writes. “This same woman was the mother of Benjamin Stiles, Esq. whose illustrious character is rewarded in the heart of every living person who knew him.
The widow taught Brace to read, and after his death in 1773 her son encouraged Brace to join the army, where his service was honored with a merit badge. He was freed in 1783, then freed by Benjamin Stiles.
“So was I, a slave for five years, fighting for freedom,” Brace notes in his account. After leaving the army, he traveled to Vermont, bought land, farmed, married, and died in 1827.
This story, notes Winter in his introduction, “offers the opportunity to see the slave trade, West Indian culture, the Seven Years’ War, slavery in New England, the Revolutionary War and the culture of the early Vermont from the perspective of an extraordinarily insightful and participating African victim.”
The cache of papers the museum just acquired contains Continental Army documents related to Jeffrey Brace, although that name does not appear on any of the documents.
“A few of the documents are signed by a man who used his nickname, ‘Pomp London’…of Woodbury,” said Stephenson, the museum’s president. “The beauty of it is that it was like a Rosetta Stone for us.”
Museum historians have recognized “Pomp London” as one of many names and nicknames used by Jeffrey Brace.
“That’s the magic of a museum,” Stephenson said. “Being able to connect a document that was literally in his hands – it’s literally something he put his mark on.”
The documents are “a real, tangible thing that we can display in the museum – it’s a really powerful hook for visitors, especially younger ones,” Stephenson said. “And that defines a path of research.”
For Rhonda Brace, the path to research is clear. It’s the family.
“My grandfather was Jeffrey Brace, you know?” she said. “His grandfather was. His father was Jeffrey. Just things of that nature. I knew my family was from St. Albans, Vermont. I never even thought about enslaving anyone or anything. I just knew we were from St. Albans.
“We’ve always had an interest in trying to trace our history, but it wasn’t until we discovered Kari’s book that we were able to go back that far.”
For Stephenson, being able to read The Blind African Slave is “a gift”.
“I don’t think I’m exaggerating in saying that it was nearly lost to mankind due to the few surviving copies,” Stephenson said.
Turning to Winter, he said, “I was very moved when you said this was possibly the first object we know of that was actually in his hands. For me, that’s the magic of what we do and it’s very powerful, very powerful.
Kari Winter will deliver her lecture, “Reclaiming Freedom: Race, Revolution, and the American Story of Jeffrey Brace,” at the museum on February 17 at 6:30 p.m. The event will be presented live at the museum and also virtually via Zoom. For tickets and other details, visit the museum’s website at https://www.amrevmuseum.org/