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Virgil Maxwell Ward letters

 Collection — Box: BW 41, Folder: VIU-2022-0038-001
Identifier: MSS 16678

Content Description

This collection contains four letters from a formerly enslaved person, Virgil M. Ward to his former Philadelphia employer, Edward Morris Davis, referred to as "Dear Friend " in the letters. Ward was born in Virginia in 1827, and it is unknown how he escaped enslavement. He worked in Philadelphia for Davis at $15.00 per month from April 1st, 1855 to April 13th, 1857. He moved to Ypsilanti, then Canada, and finally to Michigan.

The letters are from the year 1860. The first letter is dated October 25th, in which Ward states that enslavement is a sin and he thanks God that a change is happening where enslavement will be ended for all men in the United States, with the assistance of men like William H. Seward, Charles Sumner, Lloyd Garrison and others. He reveals his hope for the future and notices that there are some white people that can be great friends. He describes the loss of personal control for enslaved people, particularly families. He writes that he doesn't want the Union to dissolve but considers that it is necessary if it can abolish enslavement. He also mentions the Pennsylvania gubernatorial election in October where the Republican Party defeated the Democratic candidate. In his other letters, dated between November and December, Ward asks for a return of money owed him by Davis, which Ward claims is an accounting mistake made by Davis. The letters are friendly but Ward is firm that he is owed the money and he finally receives it after writing successive letters to Davis.


  • Creation: October 25, 1860 - December 16, 1860.


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research use.

Biographical / Historical

Virgil Maxwell Ward was a former enslaved person who was born in 1827 in Virginia and escaped from enslavement to Philadelphia, Ypsilanti, Michigan, Canada, and died in [Ann Arbor] Michigan in 1898. His widow, Mary E. Ward (1839-1917), is listed on page 400 of the Ann Arbor section of R. L. Polk Company's Ann Arbor, Ypsilant, and Washtenaw County Directory. (Detroit, 1910) It is possible that they had a son named Virgil M. Ward who is listed as a student at Ann Arbor High School in 1902-1903 but his age would have been older than that of a high school student so this is speculative.

Employer of Virgil Maxwell Ward after he escaped enslavement in Virginia, is Edward Morris Davis (1811-1887) a wealthy Philadelphia merchant, silk importer, railroad director, and Quaker. Despite his convictions toward peace, he served on the staff of General John C. Fremont in Missouri during the American Civil War. He was also an abolitionist and friend of William Lloyd Garrison, an ardent supporter of women's rights, and a friend of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. His belief in the 15th Amendment was juxtaposed to the womens movement but he felt that Black men in the South needed the right to vote to protect themselves from vigilantes.

Davis also donated his property, Oak Farm, known as Camp William Penn for the training of the first Black army troop (United States Third Infantry, 1863-1865). After the war, he developed the farm, changing the name to LaMott, and created working opportunities for Black and Irish people with low incomes. He became the leader of the Phialdelphia based Citizen's Suffrage Association.

Sources: Dealer information

"La Mott" Living Living Places U. S. Neighborhoods. (Website for finding historic places)


.04 Cubic Feet (1 legal size folder)

Language of Materials


Immediate Source of Acquisition

This collection was purchased by the Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia Library on February 4, 2022.

Condition Description

Fair. Slight tearing on the crease of the October 25, 1860 letter.

Virgil Maxwell Ward letters
Ellen Welch
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library Repository

Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library
P.O. Box 400110
University of Virginia
Charlottesville Virginia 22904-4110 United States