The remarkable story of Katherine “Kitty” Payne, born into slavery in 1816 near Huntly — the daughter of her owner, Samuel Maddox, and one of his enslaved — is receiving national exposure in a just-released book by former NBC Weekend Today co-host Jack Ford.
Ford, who besides broadcast journalism has spent much of his professional life as a prosecutor and trial lawyer, was an overnight guest at the Inn at Little Washington in February 2014 when he visited the Rappahannock County Courthouse and discovered the historical plaque outdoors describing Kitty’s plight.
“[I]ncluding the fact,” Ford writes in his author’s note, “that her biological father was her master; that her mistress decided to free her following the master’s death; that upon her emancipation, she and her children traveled with their mistress to Pennsylvania; that she was kidnapped by her master’s nephew, who claimed ownership of Kitty and her children, and was forcibly returned to Virginia; and that ‘after complex court proceedings, she regained her freedom’ in this [Rapphannock] courthouse.”
Ford says he was immediately “puzzled and intrigued by the story.”
“Puzzled because as a student of our justice system and a visiting professor at Yale University, New York University, and the University of Virginia, where I have taught a seminar about famous trials, I had never heard of Kitty’s case,” he explains. “And intrigued because the idea that a slave in the antebellum South of 1846 — where slaves were deemed to be property and, as such, generally had no legal rights — had won her freedom in a Virginia courtroom seemed not only highly improbable but also nearly impossible.”
Ford says this was the beginning of his quest to discover more about Kitty, which he did with the help of the Rappahannock Historical Society and the Rappahannock County Clerk’s Office, the latter providing him with access to the actual handwritten court records of the 1846 trial, including the witness list, the jury’s deliberation notes, and the judge’s final decision.
He credits Rappahannock Court Clerk Peggy Ralph for being “the first to introduce me to the details of Kitty’s adventure,” thanks Judy Tole of the historical society for the records she provided, and attorney Peter Luke, who in the book he calls the “unofficial historian” of the Rappahannock County Courthouse.
Ford will discuss his just-released novel, “Chariot on the Mountain,” during his appearance at the Rappahannock County Library on Friday, Sept. 14 at 8 p.m., kicking off the new Second Friday RAAC Talks season.
Old families of Rappahannock County will likely recognize several true-to-life characters in the book, including the “established, pillar-of-the-community lawyer” who agreed amazingly enough to represent an enslaved person in her unprecedented legal challenge.
In fact, for their own safety during what was a sensational trial, Kitty and her children were ordered confined by the judge to the Rappahannock County jail next door to the courthouse until such time they were freed.
“With just a few exceptions, all the characters described here actually existed, and their backgrounds, relationships, and roles in Kitty’s narrative are generally accurate,” Ford writes.