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Life of the Enslaved at Bremo Plantation
December 3, 2021
Bremo Plantation has always been known as an important historical area in Fluvanna, but not many people know about its true history, especially not the history of those enslaved at this plantation.
During the eighteenth century, the Cocke family received a land grant of 1500 acres from the King of England. John Hartwell Cocke, a descendant of the Cocke family, received the property and moved to Bremo Plantation in 1809, where he owned over 100 slaves. At the beginning of his life, Cocke struggled with the practice of slavery, which at the time was becoming more common.
At the same time, though, he didn’t think the enslaved should be emancipated without any proper training in trades. In fact, Cocke only ever emancipated 14 slaves. This willingness to practice emancipation changed when the Civil War neared and he believed slavery was essential. According to Fluvanna Historical Society Representative Tricia Johnson, “The last few years before his death, Cocke wrote that enslavement was the natural order of things and it wouldn’t be possible to end the practice.”
Cocke’s need to make Bremo Plantation as self-supporting as possible forced his slaves to do almost all of the work in keeping Cocke’s idea of self-supporting. When the enslaved failed to do so they had to endure physical punishments such as whippings and starvation. Johnson spoke about primary sources written by Cocke showing he had no qualms against separating families if it meant his plantation was more efficient.
Bremo Plantation required numerous hands to keep the plantation running, and nearly all of this work fell onto the enslaved. “At Bremo, enslaved people did lots of work. Some worked in the fields growing crops,” said Andi Cumbo Floyd, author of “The Slaves Have Names: Ancestors of My Home.”
Slaves at Bremo Plantation rarely had free time, but on Sundays Cocke let them go to church. Cocke built Bremo Slave Chapel as a place for them to worship in their rare free time.
Life for slaves in Bremo Plantation was a struggle. While keeping their master satisfied, they had to work long hours and try to meet his standards in learning trades. He provided his enslaved children under 12 education, as well as assigned easier tasks to older slaves.
After the Civil War, the Bremo Plantations still belonged to Cocke’s kin and it remains in the family to this day. Bremo Slave Chapel no longer had use without slaves, but in 1884 it served local Episcopal parishes. In 1924 this former slave chapel was transformed into a parish hall.
Those enslaved by Cocke mostly stayed by Bremo Plantation. Some worked for pay under the Cocke family while others moved nearby.