200th Anniversary of an African American Journey

by Rick Smith

Special from Tracks in the Sand



June of this year marks the 200th Anniversary of the first purchase of land on Chincoteague Island by an African American resident.  One June 11, 1811, Aucraw (Ochrau) Brinney, a former slave freed in 1787 by Charles Stockly of Parksley, paid $212.50 for 75 acres of land from the estate of Bowdoin and Thomas Robins, part of a much larger tract (825 acres) of land sold that year in six separate parcels that encompassed the entire island from Mumford Street on the north to Fisher Drive on the south.  BrinneyŐs parcel stretched from Chincoteague Channel on the west to the Glade on the east, and north-south from Booth Street to Silver Sales Landing, roughly bisected by Willow Street.  Thirty years later, Ochrau Brinney, Jr, who gained his freedom in 1812 through the 1805 will of Charles Stockly, purchased an additional tract of land that brought the total to 97 acres, extending his fatherŐs land southward to Bunting Road.  The Brinney homestead itself was located on the northwest section of what is today the Chincoteague Carnival Grounds.

            The history of the black presence on the Island actually dates to the 1690Ős with the family of George and Hannah Blake, slaves who managed the stock of John Robins (and perhaps William Kendall) on the Island.  Thus it appears there were always a few slaves, less than a dozen at any one time, on the Island from initial colonization through the end of the Civil War. 

Records of the 1700Ős are scarce, but by 1800 there were five free black families totaling 26 individuals on Chincoteague, among them the eight-member household of Ochrau Brinney.  Brinney may originally have been a slave on the Island; Stockly acquired land on the northern part of Chincoteague through his 1784 marriage to Margaret Allen.  By 1799, Brinney Sr. owned three horses, was farming land (likely rented) on the Island, and was working his way toward financial independence.

            BrinneyŐs purchase of land in 1811 served as the impetus for free black migration to the Island by providing plots of land that other free Negro immigrants could either rent or purchase.  He also sold off parcels to whites, and thus generating an integrated community on the southern part of the Island. 

            In 1835, Ocrau Brinney, Jr. and another former slave, Branson Crippen, purchased separate, adjacent tracts of land totaling 125 acres on the northern part of the Island just above the high school on Main Street.  This land was adjacent to the property then owned by William Whealton, but appears formerly to have been part of StocklyŐs holdings, and hence may have been the very land on which Brinney (and possibly Crippen) toiled as slaves.  One can only imagine the great satisfaction this must have given former slaves who longed to work their own land for the benefit of their own families.  In 1841, however, Brinney and Crippen sold these tracts to Ebea and William Whealton; the southern part of the Island seems to have been more hospitable to a black presence.

            The original Brinney property in the south formed the nucleus from which the black community grew.  By 1850 the black population had grown to twenty households, 109 individuals, 27% of the total Island inhabitants.  In 1860 there were 175 free blacks on Chincoteague, many of whom found jobs in what was becoming a booming oyster industry. 

            In the years following the Civil War, black households spread up the middle of the Island, following the line of Willow St., Pension St., and Deep Hole Rd. northward to Circle Drive.       By the 1870Ős, the community had founded two churches, Christ Union Baptist, on the Willow Street side of the original Brinney purchase, and Freewill Methodist, just off Willow at Cleveland Street Extended, and established two black cemeteries, Christ Union, beside the church of the same name, and Odd Fellows, just to the south on Willow, on land purchased from the Brinney family.  Christ Union appears to have been reserved for the extended Brinney family, while Odd Fellows was the burial grounds for other immigrant families, such as the Crippens.  Combined, these two cemeteries contain over 110 known gravesites, the final resting places of the founders of the Island black community and their descendants, truly hallowed ground.

            In 1900, the black community reached its high-point, over 240 individuals in 57 separate households.  From that date forward, the community began a steady decline as individuals and families gradually moved away from the island, seeking better economic opportunities on the mainland and in neighboring states to the north. 

            The symbolic final chapter to the Brinney story was written in 1940 when the Town of Chincoteague took possession of the last sizable tract (4 acres) of the original homestead, compensating the remaining Brinney descendants, then living in New Jersey and elsewhere, in the amount of $682 for what would become todayŐs Chincoteague Carnival Grounds. 

Like the tides on Chincoteague, the black community rose as the hopes and dreams of freed slaves were realized, and then ebbed as those dreams dimmed and the memories of hard won achievements faded.  A bittersweet story of one journey from slavery to freedom on VirginiaŐs Eastern Shore.