Elizabeth Van Lew was born in Richmond in 1818. Her family owned a large farm and several businesses. Their wealth made them part of Richmond's upper class. Like many wealthy Southern families of this time period, Van Lew's family owned slaves. The slaves performed household tasks like cooking and cleaning and also worked on the farm. As a young woman, Van Lew went to the North to complete her
"She risked everything that is dear to man— friends, fortune, comfort, health, life itself, all for the one absorbing desire of her heart—that slavery might be abolished and the Union preserved."
From Elizabeth Van Lew's gravestone
Elizabeth Van Lew.
(Reproduced with permission of the Granger Collection, New York.)
education. During this time, she came into contact with abolitionists (people who worked to end slavery).
The basic belief behind slavery was that black people were inferior to whites. Under slavery, white slaveholders treated black people as property, forced them to perform hard labor, and controlled every aspect of their lives. Thanks to the efforts of the abolitionists, growing numbers of Northerners believed that slavery was wrong. They outlawed slavery in the Northern states and tried to prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But slavery played a big role in the Southern economy and culture. As a result, many Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow slavery.
By the time Van Lew returned to the South, she believed that slavery was wrong and felt that black Americans should have the same rights and opportunities as whites. She convinced her family to free all of their slaves and to help them obtain an education in the North. As a result, the freed slaves remained loyal to the family. Most of them stayed with Van Lew throughout the Civil War. In fact, several of her former slaves played important roles in her spy operation.
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