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Milly Stearn

(c. 1784–6 Jan. 1849),

Manumission was no assurance that a freed individual could stay in Natchez. The Adams County Chancery Court frequently rejected applications for license to remain in this State. Meetings of the Police Board did, however, allow some individuals to overturn this decision and remain within Natchez. By this means, many individuals with the surname Stearns (also spelled Sterne and Sterns) having demonstrated “good character and honest deportment” continued to live in Natchez. The Natchez free Black group bearing the name Stearns also increased considerably due to the efforts of Milly Stearns who, along with her son Washington, arranged the emancipations of many extended family members.

Milly and her three young children had been freed in the 1818 will of Peyton Sterne, who was the father of Washington, Walton, and Adline. Sterne made arrangements for his executors David Lawson and Absolem Sharpe to actuate their emancipations and see to their educations. It was not until 1827, though, that the manumissions were officially recorded in Cincinnati, Ohio. Between the time that her first three children were supposed to have been manumitted and 1827, Milly had three additional children, twins Ann and Nathaniel, and their brother Seaton, presumably by a different father while technically enslaved and she purchased them from the executors of Stern’s estate. After Milly’s family were freed, they continued residing in Natchez. Washington worked as a barber in the shops of both William Johnson and Robert McCary. He also bought a woman Harriet Sterns and her son Henry, both described as “mulatto” from Archibald Wilson and then a few months later, sold her to Henry Miller. Miller, the likely father of Harriet’s son, had the pair freed in 1832. Members of the Stearns family continued living in Natchez after the Civil War. 

Further Reading

Davis, Edwin Adams, and William Ransom Hogan. The Barber of Natchez (1954).

Davis, Edwin Adams, and William Ransom Hogan, eds. William Johnson’s Natchez: The Antebellum Diary of a Free Negro (1951).

Davis, Ronald L. F. The Black Experience in Natchez, 1720–1880 (1993)

Gould, Virginia Meacham. Chained to the Rock of Adversity: To Be Free, Black & Female in the Old South (1998).