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Edith Cumbo


Colonial Williamsburg interpreter Emily James portrays Edith Cumbo.

  • Born to a free mother ca. 1735
  • Lives as a free black woman in Virginia
  • Found in court records in several counties

A Free Black Woman

Edith Cumbo is the head of her own household in Williamsburg, one of only a handful of free blacks living within the city limits about the time of the American Revolution. 

Cumbo was likely born in Charles City County, Va., several miles from Williamsburg. She is the daughter of Richard Cumbo. Edith is not enslaved because her mother was a free woman when Edith was born. According to 18th-century Virginia law, a child born in the colony inherited the free or enslaved status of his or her mother.

Evidence in Court Records

From Charles City County, Edith Cumbo moved on to Halifax County, where she appears in court records. In August 1769, the churchwardens of Antrim Parish in Halifax County present Edith to the Halifax County Court for having a child out of wedlock. The justices dismiss the case “for reasons appearing to the court,” meaning that the court in Halifax declares Edith not guilty based on the evidence presented at her trial.

Head of Her Own Household

Cumbo is a resident of Williamsburg proper by the late 1770s. By then her mother and father also live in York County near Williamsburg. Other members of the Cumbo family live nearby.

As a free black woman in the slave society of 18th-century Virginia before and after the Revolution, Edith Cumbo is independent and resourceful. She heads her own household, and works in and around Williamsburg. Although evidence for her occupation has not come to light, it is likely that Cumbo uses her housewifery skills to earn a living, perhaps as a domestic servant, laundress or seamstress. In June 1778, Edith Cumbo takes steps to protect her property and household when she takes Adam White to the York County Court, located in Yorktown, and sues him for trespass, assault and battery.

Attends Church in Williamsburg

Edith probably attends the parish church wherever she lives, perhaps including Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, at least once a month according to law. She might also be familiar with Baptist preachers such as Moses and also Gowan Pamphlet who preach the New Light gospel.