Johnny Depp is one of the most successful actors of his generation. As a result, he has earned a lasting place in Hollywood history. What many people don’t realize, however, is that Johnny also has an interesting connection to Black history. Johnny Depp is the 8th great-grandson of Elizabeth Key Grinstead, a woman who was born into slavery during the 1600s. Elizabeth’s mother was an African woman and her father was a white planter from England. Elizabeth would go on to become part of one of the most instrumental court cases involving Black people at the time. Unfortunately, however, her story has largely been forgotten. Keep reading to learn more about Johnny Depp’s interesting connection to Black history.
Who Was Elizabeth Key Grinstead?
Elizabeth Key Grinstead was born in Virginia. Despite the fact that her father, Thomas Key, was a wealthy white planter, Elizabeth was enslaved because her mother was. Shortly after Elizabeth’s birth, her father was taken to court and charged with having a baby with a Black woman. Although he initially denied being Elizabeth’s father, he later took responsibility for the child. Thomas made arrangements to have Elizabeth baptized and he supported her financially. However, Thomas must’ve fallen ill at some point in 1636, because shortly before his death that year he made arrangements for Elizabeth to become an indentured servant for a man named Humphrey Higginson. The agreement was that Elizabeth, who was about six at the time, would remain Humphrey’s servant until she turned 15 years old. During that time, Humphrey was also to act as Elizabeth’s legal garden. Once she turned 15, she was supposed to gain her freedom. However, things didn’t end up happening that way. When Humphrey returned to England, he essentially sold Elizabeth to another man, John Mottrom.
During the 1650s, Elizabeth met one of Mottrom’s white indentured servants, William Grinstead who was also a lawyer. Not much is known about William’s early life other than the fact that he was from England. More than likely, he came to the American colonies looking for new opportunities. It was common at the time for white people who traveled across the Atlantic to be placed into indentured servitude until they repaid the cost of their travel. The two had a child together but were prohibited from marrying. When Mottrom died in 1655, Elizabeth and her child were considered his property and thus classifying her as a slave. In an effort to fight the decision of Mottrom’s estate, William represented Elizabeth and filed a lawsuit on her behalf. At the time, Elizabeth was 25 years old and had been an indentured servant for 19 years. William argued that she had well exceeded the terms of her indentured servitude and that their son should’ve technically been born free.
Witnesses were brought in to testify that Elizabeth was the daughter of a free white planter who had passed away several years earlier. Once the court believed that paternity had been established, the courts agreed that Elizabeth should be free. However, Mottrom’s estate appealed the decision which was then overturned on the grounds that Elizabeth’s mother had been enslaved. The case was eventually taken to the Virginia General Assembly which decided once and for all that Elizabeth should be free. The decision marked one of the first lawsuits in which a Black person had successfully sued for their freedom. Elizbeth and William had another son before his death. She went on to remarry and when her second husband died, and she and her children inherited a very large portion of land.
The Aftermath of Grinstead’s Case
Although Elizabeth’s trial was a huge personal win and a step forward, it didn’t take long for laws to change to help prevent other people in her situation from gaining their freedom. In the winter of 1662, it was determined that children’s status was dependant upon the mother. This was a change from previous laws established in England that said that the status of a child depended on its father. At the time, many enslaved women at the time were assaulted and became impregnated by their white owners. It was essentially unheard of for a child to have a white mother and a Black father. In practice, this law made it impossible for mixed-race people to sue for their freedom.
Elizbeth key Grinstead’s Other Well-Known Descendants
Johnny Depp isn’t the only well-known person believed to descend from Elizabeth and her first husband, William. In fact, it is commonly believed that the majority of people in the United States with the last name Grinstead (and various spellings including Greenstead, Grimstead, and Grinsted) are descendants of William. Some of those people include Irish, Orish, and LaMisha Grinstead of the R&B group 702 and Tara Grinstead, a high school teacher who has been missing since 2005. Tara’s story has been featured on several true crime podcasts.[via]