Category Archives: Scholarship Review

Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground

Barbara Jeanne Fields’ Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland During the Nineteenth Century is the starting point for anyone interested in understanding the experience of slavery and freedom in Maryland. Fields  analyzes and describes the ways in which Maryland’s status as a “border state” or “middle state” affected the practice of slavery. In particular, she argues that the presence of a large community of free blacks had a powerful impact on the experience of enslaved people in Maryland.

She begins by examining slavery and freedom in Maryland prior to the Civil War.  By 1810, Maryland had the largest free black population in the United States. By the beginning of the Civil War, the free black population in Maryland was almost equal to the slave population in the state. However, the ratio of free blacks to enslaved persons differed in different areas of the state. The greatest number of free blacks lived in northern Maryland, while the greatest number of enslaved persons lived in southern Maryland and on the Eastern Shore. This high number of free blacks caused great concern amongst the slaveholders in Maryland. They were worried that free men and women were helping slaves escape Maryland and migrate to the free states of Pennsylvania and Delaware or hiding them in free black communities in the northern counties, in particular Baltimore City.

The relationships that existed between free persons and enslaved persons is of particular interest, as there were many familial and social bonds between free and enslaved people in Maryland, which further encouraged enslaved persons to attempt escape. Slaveholders pushed for stricter state laws and regulations to halt the expansion of the free population by forcing newly manumitted persons out of Maryland. Fears about the impact of free people on the system of slavery also created regional tensions between the southern and Eastern Shore counties, on the one hand, where land owners relied on slave labor and the northern counties, on the other hand, where industry leaders increasingly preferred free labor. These tensions would continue through to the Civil War.

IAs a slave state with southern sympathies that surrounded Washington D.C., Maryland received a lot of attention from the Federal Government during the Civil War. Opinions on the war and its goals and causes varied within the state. Many slaveholding Marylanders were concerned that a Union victory would mean the end of slavery nationwide and actively opposed the state legislature’s decision not to secede. The presence of federal troops, especially those from states with abolitionist sympathies greatly affected the slave institution in Maryland. Many enslaved persons, upon learning the Union troops would be nearby, fled to army encampments where they were often given refuge. Despite orders from the upper levels of Army command, these troops protected the escapees from persecution by slave catchers or former owners. A military order to provide refuge to any enslaved person escaping from the Confederate States further helped Maryland slaves to escape, as they would claim to be escaping from Virginia and be given refuge by the Union Army. The abolition of slavery in Washington D.C. during the Civil War added yet another way for Maryland slaves to escape, and many free persons (with whom they shared social and familial bonds) joined them in relocating to the District of Columbia.

In terms of the semester project, I feel that this book has revealed new paths of escape for enslaved persons in Maryland that should be explored. The role of free black communities in close proximity to enslaved persons should be further explored. The many connections between the free black communities and enslaved persons in Maryland made for frequent assistance from these communities in escape from Maryland. In addition, I believe that the assistance provided to escaped slaves by the Union Army units stationed in Maryland could be an interesting “path to freedom” that could be further explored by our project. In particular Fields mentions the abolitionist sympathies of the Massachusetts regiments that were stationed in Maryland and the District of Columbia during the war, such as Colonel Henry S. Briggs’ regiment. Some primary sources that Fields uses throughout the book that could be investigated are the newspapers published during this time, in particular the Baltimore Sun, Baltimore American, and Cecil Whig. I would add to that list Harford County’s newspaper (which began publishing in 1856), The Aegis and its predecessor The Southern Aegis.

All in all, I feel that Fields book is an excellent analysis of the special circumstances surrounding Maryland and the institution of slavery within the state during the years leading up to, including, and following the Civil War.

Adapted from Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground by Jacob Bensen

A Chesapeake family and their slaves: A Study in Historical Archaeology

Anne Elizabeth Yentsch’s, A Chesapeake family and their slaves: A Study in Historical Archaeology is, in part, a defense of historical archaeology. Yentsch argues that the reputation of historical archaeology was damaged by its association with tourism during the 1970s and 1980s.  As a way to rectify this problem and assert the value of archaeology for creating new understandings of the past, Yentsch pieces together a domestic history of the Calvert family by conducting excavations and interpreting material culture finds at their residence, 52 State St., Annapolis.

Yentsch demonstrates that material culture and its traces can provide important clues about power and the construction of identity. Her effort to understand the Calvert households includes mapping to demonstrate that house orientation and location are significant in the presentation of authority. She also integrates archival evidence, finding descriptions of Henry Calvert’s clothing in order to argue that his use “of fine and gentlemanly fabric: cool, white calico; blue satin; yellow tabby; or scarlet camlet” (298) set him apart from others in Annapolis. Artwork reinforces these claims. (21,57,251,287)  Entire chapters are dedicated to the symbolic power of fine food and its preparation.  Material evidence of an Orangery and gardens also relates to the Calverts’ efforts to shape family identity and political power.

So does their ownership of slaves.

Yet, Yentsch’s archaeological approach also allows her to demonstrate that the people owned by the Calvert family also exerted some control over their identities. Artifact clusters of beads, coral fragments, turkey bones, hearthstones and pipe stems are evidence not only that there were slaves in the household, but also that they maintained some ties to their cultural identity.  Other evidence reinforces this. Written records combined with material evidence enable her to argue that their “material possessions were slightly higher” in quality than those found in other slave quarters, that they “lived in family-like enclaves, had a higher percentage of young children… and kept African names as often as not” (177).

The particular story of Cubit, a highly prized slave of Captain Calvert, suggests the possibility that Calvert gave enslaved people in his household more freedom than that allowed to other rural slaves.  Captain Calvert appointed Cubit overseer for one of his quarters, suggesting he was held in high esteem. (177-8,186)  Cubit’s Quarter appears on a 1734 slave list and has two other slaves assigned to it.  He is valued at “30,” more than all slaves listed. (172) It would be interesting to further investigate Cubit’s connections with runaway slave “Negro Stephen, a cooper” who reportedly hid at Cubit’s Quarter.  A slave of Charles Carroll also “sought sanctuary with them [the Calvert’s] and “harbored” for a long winter’s month in 1729.” (177)

The strongest points of the text for our use are Yentsch’s how-to methodologies.  Historical archaeology is an interdisciplinary approach to the past. Yentsch includes a variety of sources in her work, from items found in the ground to documents from both national and international sources.  Research avenues include “court records, ledgers, probate inventories, legislative proceedings wills, tax list” as well as “narrative sources,” (197) all of which provide bits of information and strategies for reconstructing historical context.  Folklorist Henry Glassie, whom she quotes often, believes “ordinary people” should be studied “working from the inside out, beginning with the dimensions of daily life in which they are articulate and pushing the boundaries forward.” (166)  This technique is clearly one used by Yentsch enabling her to showcase Annapolis and the Chesapeake as a community of different cultures collaborating on a daily bases, and that within the Calvert residence, English and West African cultures merged.

Adapted from A Chesapeake family and their slaves: A Study in Historical Archaeology by Robin K. Martin

Free Blacks in Baltimore

When historians analyze slavery in Maryland, the free black community is almost always a center of the discussion. In Maryland, Free Blacks made up a significant part of the Black community. Maryland, in fact, had the largest free black population of any other state in the antebellum period. For white and black residents alike, free blacks were a contradiction to the institution of slavery. In his book, “Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860,” Christopher Phillips examines the life and culture of free blacks, the increasing restraints on their freedoms by white society, and more importantly, the resilience of these communities to create a determined and thriving culture despite this oppression. Throughout the book, Phillips attempts to show how movement through time and place regularly changed the face of freedom in Urban Baltimore.

Phillips points out the economic and social issues that are crucial to understanding Maryland slavery throughout the nineteenth century. Before the Revolutionary War, Maryland farmers depended on and experimented with tobacco cultivation all over the state. However, as they moved increasingly northward, planters discovered that tobacco was a fickle crop. Instead, planters diversified their large estates to grow a variety of crops, including less labor-intensive grains. This change made Baltimore a boomtown, and contributed to its status as a true urban city (11). Diversification of the economy meant many things for members of the enslaved population. For some, it meant manumission because masters sometimes freed slaves no longer necessary for planting and harvesting their crops. For others, and for similar reasons, it meant sale to the Deep South. For many, it meant their labor could be “hired-out” either on their own terms or on conditions arranged by their masters. Phillips argues that these changes in the economic system gave that slaves a certain amount of autonomy, especially when they lived in large black communities as they did in Baltimore. He suggests, because masters no longer relied on slaves solely for agricultural labor, slaves and masters engaged in a power struggle in which slaves had some autonomy, especially when they interacted with other blacks and spent time away from the spying eyes of their masters. This power struggle was intensified because of Baltimore’s proximity to the free states. Dissatisfied slaves could threaten to run away with some realistic chance of success- especially if their journey to freedom began in the less controlled environment of Baltimore.

As the nineteenth century progressed, racial discrimination grew in part because white slaveholders became increasingly worried about the influence of free blacks. According to Phillips, this fear led whites to impose harsher restrictions on the black community, and gave rise to an ideology of white supremacy, even in multi-cultural Baltimore where slaves were a small percent of the population (188). According to Phillips, free blacks responded to increased segregation and limits on their freedoms by working to become as independent as possible. Through home ownership, skilled and semi-skilled labor, and development of church communities and education, free blacks did what they could to overcome stereotypes and restrictions placed on them by white society and the pro-slavery government (154). Free and enslaved blacks adapted, finding ways to maintain their communities and culture as white society continually limited their freedom.

Phillips, Christopher. Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Adapted from Christopher Phillips and Free Blacks in Baltimore by Talbot Kuhn

Race and Citizenship

In “The Maryland Context of Dred Scott: The Decline in the Legal Status of Maryland Free Blacks 1776-1810,” David Skillen Bogen outlines a series of legal changes in the status and rights of free blacks in Maryland between the signing of the Declaration of Independence to 1810. By then, most of their rights as freedmen had been destroyed. The 1857 Supreme Court decision known as Dred Scott declared that no black person could be a citizen of the United States, whether enslaved or free. Bogen argues that this decision was not surprising. Supreme Court Justice Taney had grown up in Maryland, socialized by law and custom to accept the idea that black people were never intended to be recognized as citizens.

 

Adapted from Critical Readings by Sidrah Shayiq

Forced Migrations

In “Fifty-Four Days Work of Two Negroes,” J Elliot Russo debunks the assumption that slaves were only used in plantation economies by analyzing enslaved labor in Somerset County, Maryland. Most of the Chesapeake region was filled with tobacco plantations. However, the geography of Somerset was not suited for growing tobacco profitably, thus it had a diverse economy based in lumber, meat, ships, and more. Russo uses judicial, tax, probate, and land records to explore the various types of slave labor in Somerset County. He argues that more scholars should study slavery in regions with atypical economies to help broaden our understanding of the experience of slavery and its economic reach.

Russo takes the title of his essay from a court case involving Comfort Jenckinson from Accomack County, Virginia, and Heber Whittingham from Somerset County, Maryland. Jenckinson claimed that Whittingham owed him a debt that could be paid by “54 days work of two negroes” (pg. 467). As this example demonstrates, slave owners could lend out enslaved people as a way to pay debts, even across county and state lines. This story reminds us that black people’s migrations during slavery were not always made as daring escapes to the north. Sometimes, slaves were sent South –temporarily or permanently.

Adapted from Critical Readings by Sidrah Shayiq

The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania

In “The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, 1830-1860,” Dr. Nilgun Anadolu Okur offers a brief overview of slavery in the state of Pennsylvania. By 1830, the city of Philadelphia had long been a beacon of freedom for escaping slaves. It was home to a large free black community as well as a number of anti-slavery societies and abolitionists groups. Despite this, Dr. Okur argues that Pennsylvania was built by prominent, slave holding men like state founder, William Penn, and Benjamin Franklin. Pennsylvania was also the stage for significant fights in the long war against slavery.  John Brown stayed in Chambersburg while he planned his raid of the armory at Harpers Ferry. Benjamin Lay, an immigrant from Barbados, came to Philadelphia in 1731 and made several dramatic public statements against the evils of slavery. From these tumultuous beginnings, Dr. Okur argues, Pennsylvania emerged as pivotal in the creation of the Underground Railroad. In fact, she argues that early escape stories in Columbia Township could be the first in the known in the history of aided escape. In 1804 General Thomas Boude helped his servants’ mother escape her slaveholder in Virginia, inspiring more slaves to seek freedom. They traveled a route that took them from the Maryland line to several safe stops in Columbia township. Finally, Dr. Okur reminds us that many prominent black abolitionists had ties to the antislavery society in Philadelphia, including William Still and Robert Purvis.

Adapted from The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania by Francis Mohammed

Border War

Stanley Harrold’s book, Border War, examines the tensions and violence that erupted in the border states for at least a decade before the formal start of the Civil War. Harrold foregrounds the experiences of runaway slaves traveling through New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, and Kentucky, making it undeniable that slavery was at the root of all the political and social upheaval that marked the 1840s and 1850s. Taken together, the activities of the underground railroad, the enforcement of fugitive slave laws, mob violence, and political dealings all gave shape, in Harrold’s estimation, to a war before the war.

Adapted from Review: Border War by Stanley Harrold by Gregory Williams

The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland

In The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland, T. Stephen Whitman argues that examining economic growth Baltimore alongside economic stagnation in Southern and Eastern Maryland, sheds important light on the experience of slavery and freedom in early Maryland (page 4). While it has long been argued that the relatively high number of manumissions that took place in Baltimore between 1770 and 1830 are evidence of a growing anti-slavery sentiment, Whitman argues that economic factors were more important than moral or political ones in convincing slave owners to reduce their dependence on slave labor. Between the Revolution and 1830, the profitability of tobacco declined. Tobacco is a labor intensive crop that had fueled the rise of plantation slavery in colonial Maryland and Virginia. In the early national period, many Maryland farmers switched to wheat, a crop that requires less labor and fewer workers, except during planting and harvest. As a result, term-slavery became more common. Rural slave owners sent enslaved people to Baltimore during down times in the agricultural cycle. There, some enslaved people found paid employment, and the possibility of purchasing freedom became more likely (page 13). Others were forced to perform unpaid industrial labor. But industrial slavery was more difficult to manage and less obviously profitable than agricultural slavery. Whitman argues these economic realities led to a trend of manumission. For example, while the Maryland Chemical Works is often cited as an example of how industrial slavery could be profitable for slave owners, there is also evidence to suggest it was never stable (page 33). If enslaved workers ran away, production was interrupted, damaging or destroying the factory’s products. This, in turn, led to a loss in profits and made it difficult to justify the expense of finding and returning escaped worker.s Ultimately, J.K Mckim and Sons, owners of the Chemical Works, decided that it was more economically sound to rely on a paid labor force.

Whitman argues that the rising number of manumissions which resulted from these changing economic conditions, also led to changes in remaining master-slave relationships. Slaves could threaten to run away or simply not return from their term of service in Baltimore. The presence of a large and growing free black population gave enslaved people the opportunity to disappear into the community (73). Opportunities for paid work made it possible for enslaved people to negotiate a price for their own freedom or the freedom of family members. Rather than risk losing enslaved workers, slave owners sometimes agreed to negotiate, and manumission was became a tool in negotiations as well as a tool of control. Sometimes, slave owners refused to allow enslaved people to purchase freedom, but they were willing to propose a gradual process of manumission that would delay the loss of workers. At the same time, the promise of eventual freedom for themselves or family members could be enough to prevented slaves from running away, enabling slave owners to protect their investment in human property.

Whitman’s book identifies several individuals whose stories we might highlight as part of the landscape of slavery and freedom. These stories demonstrate that enslaved people migrated by chance and by choice, creating pathways to freedom that might be worth mapping as part of our class project. For example, in 1798, Martha Hay hired out an enslaved cook named Perry to Captain Conner for a European voyage. On the return trip, Perry escaped to Martinique and was not recaptured (page 15). Others enslaved people migrated much more locally. Maria Cooper ran from her master in 1818 to hide with freed relatives in Baltimore (page 72).  Scipio Freeman was manumitted and lived in the Federal Hill neighborhood.

Adapted from  The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland by Stephanie Smith

The Kidnapping of Free African Americans in the Antebellum South

Carol Wilson’s Freedom at Risk explores in great detail “a topic frequently noted by scholars but not examined in any detail” (page 1):  the kidnapping and illegal enslavement of free African Americans in the Antebellum United States. Wilson argues that free blacks were at high risk for being kidnapped in all areas of the country because whites failed to enforce anti-kidnapping laws, and they accepted legal loopholes that permitted the enslavement of free African Americans. Nonetheless, Wilson also identifies various forms of black and white resistance to incidents of kidnapping and enslavement. She argues that, black abolitionists were ultimately more impassioned and dedicated to the cause because they did not have the luxury –as did  whites– to ignore the issue of kidnapping when other causes seemed more pressing. They were driven by a real and present danger and understood the need to protect themselves and their neighbors.

First, WIlson outlines illegal kidnapping and enslavement of free African Americans. She describes how slave-catchers –most often white, but occasionally black– motivated by profit accomplished the task of subduing and selling free people. She looks at the geography of kidnapping, determining that it most often occurred in Border States (i.e. Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland). She also delineates common methods of kidnapping, which usually involved direct violence or deceit. Wilson contends that kidnappers often got away with their illegal activities because their actions were implicitly protected by racial prejudice and explicitly protected by “black codes,” laws that applied only to the status of black people.

Next, Wilson examines legal means for enslaving free blacks. The most frequent victims were former slaves whose masters had emancipated them. It was not difficult for the heirs of a slave-owner’s estate to contest manumissions in court, thereby setting off a legal effort to track and re-enslave people. Other freed slaves were arrested because they remained in the south. Black codes required freed people to move north or risk reenslavement. Sometimes, free black northerners working on ships could be arrested if they went ashore in a slave state. If none of their white fellows bailed them out of jail, they could be sold into slavery. In short, Wilson demonstrates that state anti-kidnapping laws were weak at best, and offered few protections for free black people.

Wilson identifies rare and notable instances in which northern governors attempted to assist free blacks who had been kidnapped. A few governors enacted strong anti-kidnapping laws to combat the lack of federal anti-kidnapping laws. Some politicians worked to free illegally enslaved people whenever kidnapping cases came to their attention. Their efforts were typically unsuccessful. It was not possible to apply state laws over state lines, and federal laws tended to protect slave owners.

Wilson highlights the work of  abolitionist groups, the members of which lobbied state legislatures, worked to prevent the kidnapping of free black people, and undertook to rescue of those illegally held in bondage. Abolitionists groups were successful in manumitting the illegally enslaved during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but many white abolitionist organizations abandoned their anti-kidnapping crusade around 1830 in order to focus on the abolition of slavery. Unfortunately, racism was rampant in the North, even in abolitionist circles. As a result, black people who were already free did not much interest anti-slavery groups by the mid-1800s.

Finally, Wilson draws attention to the critical role that free black people played in the long fight against kidnapping. Although they had limited resources with which to fight reenslavement, kidnapping was a direct threat to the members of their community. Like their white counterparts, free black abolitionists petitioned state legislatures for stricter anti-kidnapping laws and sought relief for individual victims. Additionally, they were prepared to act as vigilantes in defense of their communities. They kept watch for suspicious-looking individuals and armed themselves. In spite of their vulnerability, they did not, to quote Wilson, “suffer in silence. They battled the crime of kidnapping at all levels of government, consistently reminding white officials of their humanity and their rights” (116). Ultimately, it was not a lack of black effort that hampered the fight against kidnapping but, as Wilson contends, pervasive anti-black racism on the part of whites in all areas of the country that led even non-slaveholding whites to tolerate illegal enslavement.

Wilson’s book gives us an important starting point to examine kidnapping as central to the experience of slavery and freedom in Maryland. For example, Wilson identifies an interstate kidnapping gang, the Cannon-Johnsons, and identifies several instances in which abolitionist groups in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland rescued some of their victims. One of the member of this gang, Jesse Cannon, lived in Fork Bridge, Maryland. In 1819, he purchased a group of  kidnapped free black people, including Sarah Hagerman. Anthony Wheately, a member of the Maryland abolition society, joined forces with Pennsylvania abolitionist John H. Willits to attempt her rescue. Though they were unsuccessful in recovering Hagerman, Wheatley and Willits discovered numerous free black captives at Jesse Cannon’s house (19-20). Throughout the book, Wilson mentions other free black victims, either kidnapped in Maryland or illegally sold into Maryland. These include Adam Gibson, who was sent into slavery by Philadelphia Commissioner Edward D. Ingraham (55), and Margaret Morgan, who was legally born a slave in Maryland but had lived free all of her life. She married a free black man in 1832 and moved to Pennsylvania. In 1837, her mistress’ heiress had Morgan and her children, “at least one of whom had been born in Pennsylvania and was therefore free,” brought back to Maryland by a kidnapper named Edward Prigg (71-72). The Pennsylvania Court found Prigg guilty of kidnapping, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed their ruling (72). Wilson also offers useful information about the Maryland Abolition Society and the efforts of the Maryland Quakers to stop kidnapping in the state. If we look at the cases that they handled, we can find kidnapping narratives and determine how involved Maryland abolitionists were with the issue of kidnapping. Additionally, Wilson’s bibliography offers up numerous primary sources, including a long list of slave narratives that can help us find sources to further explore the issue of kidnapping in Maryland.

Adapted from Carol Wilson’s Work on the Kidnapping of Free African Americans in the Antebellum South by Allyson Schuele