Photo credit: Stephen Lacko
Racial prejudice. Gender discrimination. Injustice. These are themes that resonate powerfully in so many ways today. Indeed, sadly, these are also timeless themes that have been insidiously woven throughout the fabric of the tapestry of our nation’s history. In 1846, these troubling refrains took center stage in a courtroom in Rappahannock County, Virginia. Yet, what transpired inside the walls of this single-room courthouse could serve as an unlikely beacon of hope, a transcendent moment of inspiration for our society today as we continue to wrestle with who we are, and who we hope to become, as a nation.
I quite literally stumbled upon the story while visiting the village of Washington, VA, in February of 2015. After wandering inside the historic one-room courthouse, which had been built in the 1830s (and was still in regular use as the Rappahannock County Court), I came across a small plaque on the lawn. The plaque noted that, in that same courthouse in 1846, Kitty, an African American slave, had won her freedom. I was both curious and puzzled. I was curious because I’ve taught a seminar at Yale about famous trials for more than a decade, and yet never read or heard anything about this case. And I was puzzled because the idea that a slave in the racially fraught antebellum South could have won her freedom in a Virginia court in 1846 seemed improbable at best. So after deciding to look into the story, I embarked on an unanticipated journey into the lives of Kitty, Mary, and Fanny, three extraordinary women who joined in a most improbable alliance in a quest for justice.
What both surprised and inspired me about the story is also what most intrigued me from the moment I first stumbled across Kitty's saga: how the force of an intriguing alliance of three very different but very powerful women could prevail against the basest traditions and injustices of that era. I hope that I have been able to give voice to these complex women and their willingness to jettison the shackles of their time and place in a quest for justice.
Kitty’s story reinforces the unfortunate notion that many of the themes woven throughout the book are, indeed, timeless. Racial animus, gender inequity, greed, violence, insensitivity, and selfishness in the face of the struggles of others all continue to resonate and reverberate painfully throughout our lives today. And yet, as with Kitty’s story of courage and perseverance, we can hopefully still foster today the sagas of heroism, tolerance and acceptance of others, friendship, and personal triumph against overwhelming odds that can continue to inspire us all.
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is an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning journalist, college professor, documentary film producer, author, and former trial attorney. Chariot on the Mountain
is his third novel.