“Sometime around the middle of April 1804, a slave named John Freeman wrote a letter to the president of the United States. Freeman, technically owned by a Maryland doctor, William Baker, had been contracted to work for Thomas Jefferson, who engaged him to serve in the White House and accompany Jefferson on trips to Monticello.
Now, Freeman was writing because he wanted the president to buy him outright.
“I am sorye to trubel you with a thing of this kind,” he began, saying he felt obliged to do so because “I have been foolish anufe to in gage myself to Melindar.”
The letter was an extraordinary feat of persuasion, heartfelt but also artful. Freeman, promising to serve Jefferson faithfully, went on to ask whether the president might even be “so good as to keep us [both]” — that is, purchase a female slave named Melinda Colbert. On their trips to Virginia, Freeman had become enamored of Colbert, a niece of Sally Hemings who belonged to Jefferson’s daughter Maria and her husband. Maria died that month, and the two slaves feared Melinda would be sold away.
The letter was one among numerous acts of resourcefulness and initiative that would result, years later, in John Freeman’s being purchased and owned by not one U.S. president, but two. He would marry his beloved Melinda; gain his freedom; and, not least, purchase a piece of property on K Street in Northwest Washington, between 18th and 19th streets. There Freeman would establish a home for her and their children, taking his place among a unique, now largely forgotten community of free black residents with ties to U.S. presidents such as Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington….”