In her new book, Fortune, Christian activist and writer Lisa Sharon Harper delves into her own family history to uncover not only her family’s story but the story of race in America–exposing the way it has broken us and envisioning a path toward repair. The first chapter opens with the 1705 court date of Fortune Game/Magee. As you’ll begin to see from this excerpt, that pivotal moment in Fortune’s life is an onion, layered with painful but important truths about our history.
M ixed-race, eighteen-year-old Fortune Game/Magee stood alone in the quaint wooden courthouse in Somerset County, Maryland. Fortune lived and breathed and had her being in the exact days when English settlers built the legal framework that eventually enslaved more than four million people of African descent on American soil. Standing in that courtroom, Fortune’s “mulatto” (mixed) body was used by the pioneers of our nation’s legal framework to establish, enforce, and protect White supremacy. Their strategy? Snatch and suppress the flourishing of everyone else. This is the crack in our national foundation. Fortune felt that crack in her body.
I imagine Fortune sitting in the Somerset County courtroom having no control over her future. Her only crime was being born of a mixed-race couple. Black and White—that was the demarcation line between bondage and freedom in Fortune’s days. But her court proceedings took place on ground layered with iterations of White nationalist subjugation.
Each word spoken by the prosecutor, the judge, and witness after witness wedged Fortune further away from freedom. Freedom—that condition ordained by God for all humanity on the first page of the Bible:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our
image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over
the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle,
and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping
thing that creeps upon the earth’” (Gen. 1:26).
God said all humanity bears the image of the divine. God said all humanity is called by God and created with the capacity to exercise dominion in the world. God said this of Fortune. She was human. She was born to run and laugh and love and flirt and be courted and marry and have children (or not have children) and help steward the world—to make choices that protect, serve, and cultivate her family, her community, her town, and her nation.
This is what it means to be human. This is what it would have meant for the law to see Fortune as human. But on that day in 1705, in the Somerset County courthouse, men of European descent spoke with conviction and agreed on one basic premise: Fortune Magee may be half-White, but she was not fully White. Further, she was a woman—designed for use by men. Three decades of ever-changing race codes that reflected increasingly hardened ideas of race and commitment to White supremacy brought Fortune to this moment. She stood amid White men who looked at her and did not see a human being. They looked at her mixed-race body and saw a challenge to their supremacy.
Fortune’s father was enslaved, but she stood in that Somerset County courtroom to face the prospect of indenture precisely because she was not enslaved upon birth. She likely had been able to live free until she was eighteen years old. Why? Because of White privilege.
Lord Baltimore Charles Calvert, grandson of the first Lord Baltimore, brought sixteen-year-old Eleanor Butler with him from England to Maryland in 1681—six years before Fortune was born. Butler fell in love with and married an enslaved man, identified in court records as “Negro Charles.” She appealed to her friend Lord Baltimore to repeal the 1664 law, which required Eleanor’s immediate enslavement and the enslavement of all her children for life, in perpetuity. Calvert immediately moved to repeal the original 1664 race law. It was rescinded and replaced with the 1681 race law, which acknowledged an unscrupulous practice that had developed since passage of the original law. Masters were forcing their White indentured servant women to marry the masters’ enslaved African men. This practice reaped exponential increases in planters’ free labor force over generations. Maryland’s legislature limited the scope of the law to forced marriages between Black men and White women and dropped the requirement that their children be enslaved. The result? As of 1681, all newborn mixed- race children would be born free.
The eighteen-year-old girl listed as a “mulatto” in court documents should have been subject to Lord Baltimore’s 1681 law. But in the interim, the Maryland General Assembly soured on Lord Baltimore and replaced his law with a harsher, more comprehensive, racialized legal structure in 1692—five years after Fortune’s birth.
The new law protected White women and their children from slavery by removing the financial impetus for their enslavement. They would be indentured to the local parish, not enslaved by the master. The parishes were ordered to transact the sales of enslaved Black men and indentured White and mixed-race servants to White families. The proceeds of those sales assisted poor Whites in the parish.
In essence, at the turn of the eighteenth century, the church itself became the primary auction block in Maryland. The grotesque nature of this arrangement cannot be overstated. The church joined the banks, insurance companies, shipping companies, iron works, and other institutions in crushing the image of God on this land.
Fortune stood at the precipice of bondage with only the memories of her freedom and her family to give her comfort. Indenture was just as brutal as slavery. Indentured servants were whipped and maimed as punishment. Fortune did not know what was in store for her, and she had no control over it—perhaps that combination is the essence of the terror of bondage, whether enslaved or indentured. She held within her both this unknowing and a complete lack of control over her own body, life, and family.
When I imagine eighteen-year-old Fortune in that courtroom, I find my own breath shortening in anticipation of the ruling. With short breaths, Fortune likely listened as the judge asked her if she understood her sentence. She was hereby ordered to retroactive indentured service to Mrs. Mary Day until the age of thirty-one years old.
Safety for herself and her daughters? Gone, gone.
By the time Fortune ended her service to Mary Day in 1718, she had adopted the last name Game, clearly identifying with her Senegalese father. Ten years later she owned land and lived with two of her children. Fortune’s daughters chose sides in their choices of surnames, identifying with either the Senegalese Games or the Scotch-Irish Magees. But Sarah chose neither. She changed her last name to Fortune, likely lifting up her mother as the inherited treasure of her family. For more than 150 years to come—approximately eight generations—on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and in colonial Virginia, the surname Fortune would spell f-r-e-e-d-o-m.
On the 1880 census, my second-great-grandfather Robert Fortune and his wife Mary J. Byrd lived next door to the Loving family in Caroline County, Virginia. Nearly a century after that, the Loving family challenged Virginia’s 1662 race law in the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia (1967). Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter fell in love, got married, and were thrown in jail. Their Supreme Court win repealed Virginia’s 1662 race law and knocked down laws that banned interracial marriage in seventeen states, effectively pulling up the legal root of American racialized hierarchy. The couple’s daughter, Peggy, married a Fortune.
Lisa Sharon Harper
Lisa Sharon Harper (LSMA, MFA) is the founder of Freedom Road and a sought-after Christian writer, speaker, and activist. She has written several books, including The Very Good Gospel and Fortune. Harper previously served as the chief church engagement officer for Sojourners. She lives in Philadelphia.