The Kidnapping of the Rachel and Elizabeth Parker and the Murder of Joseph C. Miller

Still, William. The Underground Railroad.  1871. Reprint, Project Gutenburg, 2005.

William Still’s book The Underground Railroad has a story about the kidnapping of Rachel and Elizabeth Parker from Chester County Pennsylvania, and the subsequent murder of Joseph C. Miller.  The story includes the characters: Rachel and Elizabeth Parker, Joseph C. Miller, Thomas McCreary, and John B. Campbell.  The Parker girls were kidnapped in Pennsylvania by McCreary and taken to John Campbell’s slave pen in Baltimore.  From there Elizabeth Campbell was sold to New Orleans, while Rachel remained imprisoned.  Joseph Miller and other Pennsylvanians pursued Thomas McCreary to Baltimore in order to recover Rachel and Elizabeth.  This is the basis of my project. The additional primary sources annotated here help to flesh out the characters, document the movements, and provide more details for the events of the story presented by Still.

Baltimore City Register of Wills (Wills), John Campbell, 1853-1855, Book NH 26, Folio 196, MSA CM 219-3, CR 136.

John Campbell died in 1854 and left all of his possessions to his wife Marian.  His will gave very few additional clues to Campbell’s identity, but when cross referenced with the 1850s census, the will allows researchers to confirm the location of his property holdings. 

Baltimore City Register of Wills (Administration Accounts), John Campbell, 1854, Book NH 61, MSA CM 193, CR 9548.

The administration of John Campbell’s estate after his death shows his economic profile.  He owned a country estate in Baltimore County on York Road which sold for $3,300.  He was owed small amounts of money from various individuals, and those amounts were paid to his widow Marian.  Judging from his assets, Campbell was in the lower elite-landowning class.

Campbell, John. “$10 Reward.” Baltimore Sun. June 19, 1846.  (accessed November 3, 2014).

In this Runaway ad, John Campbell offers a $10 reward for a slave named Caroline.  He lists his address of residence for Caroline’s return.  This address is at Pratt and High Street near what is now Little Italy.  On the 1850 census there were several foreign born lodgers living at Campbell’s address, it is likely that Campbell rented rooms in his home to lodgers because of his adjacency to Baltimore’s harbor.  His house was a convenient location for travelers to stay upon their arrival, or as a stop along their voyage.

Independent Whig. “Bigler and the Honor of the State.” The Raftman’s Journal, October 4, 1854, image 2. (accessed November 3, 2014).

Rachel and Elizabeth Parker had been kidnapped out of Pennsylvania and brought to Maryland for sale into slavery. Two years later, when this article appeared, the kidnapping was still the subject of tension between leaders in Maryland and Pennsylvania.  This inflammatory article in The Raftman’s Journal expresses anger at Governor Bigler of Pennsylvania for allowing Governor Lowe of Maryland to “trample on our constitutional rights.”  By 1854, the issue of slavery had become a matter of state honor and this article reflects the ongoing struggles across the border of freedom and slavery.

Masser, H.B. “The Recent Kidnapping Case.” Sunbury American and Shamokin Journal, January 17, 1852, image 2. (accessed Novemver 3, 2014).

This article describes the growing tension between Pennsylvania as a free state and Maryland as a slave state.  It places the murder of Joseph Miller and the kidnapping of Rachel and Elizabeth Parker into a larger struggle between free and slave states.  The article refers to the Christiana riots and the murder of Edward Gorsuch, comparing the murder of Joseph Miller as similar and suggesting that violence is inevitable along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border.

Mysterious Death.” Jeffersonian Republican, January 15, 1852, Image 2. . (accessed November 3, 2014).

This is the first known account of both the Rachel Parker kidnapping and the murder of Joseph Miller.  It does not explicitly implicate slave-catcher Thomas McCreary as Miller’s murderer, but a connection is implied.  The article expresses righteous indignation against Maryland kidnappers enslaving free Pennsylvanians.

 “United States Census, 1850,” index and images, FamilySearch (accessed 03 Nov 2014), John Campbell, Baltimore county, part of, Baltimore, Maryland, United States; citing family 2387, NARA microfilm publication M432, NARA microfilm publication M432, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.’

This is likely the John B. Campbell referenced in William Still’s story in The Underground Railroad.  John Campbell and his wife Marian were born in Ireland.  Campbell had lodgers from Ireland and Germany, who probably stayed with him due to his closeness to the harbor at Pratt and High streets.  If, alternatively, Campbell lived in Baltimore County and was a farmer, as the census suggests, these tenants could have been servants.  I doubt this however, because the other tenants were families, Harvey and Perry (I read the name as Perry but the handwriting is difficult to decipher; it could easily be another name).  Also, the Baltimore County estate on York road that was sold upon Campbell’s death was being rented out, so it was not the Campbells’ primary residence.

Adapted from Annotated Bibliography for The Murder of Joseph C. Miller by Michael Stone

Joseph Evans Snodgrass: Border State Abolitionist

Carey, Brycchan and Geoffrey Plank, eds., Quakers and Abolition (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2014)

This book is a collection of fifteen essays that examine Quaker antislavery sentiment between 1658 and 1890. The essays, written by authors of varying religious, national, and disciplinary backgrounds, demonstrate that Quakers often disagreed with one another about the larger antislavery movement and, in some cases, about the validity of the institution of slavery itself. This book is important because it connects Joseph Evans Snodgrass to the kindapping of Thomas Mitchell. Snodgrass went to the Baltimore train station to meet Mitchell and his suspected kidnappers.

Harrold, Stanley, The Abolitionists and the South, 1831-1861 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995)

This book describes the antislavery movement in the United States in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Harrold shifts the focus away from abolitionism in the North, drawing attention to antislavery activism in the South. He pays particular attention to the Border States. This book describes Snodgrass’ involvement in the antislavery movement. Harrold considers Snodgrass as one of the abolitionists whose actions in the South have not received enough recognition.

Harrold, Stanley, Border War: Fighting Over Slavery Before the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010)

This book describes the transformation that Joseph Snodgrass oversaw at his newspaper Baltimore Saturday Visitor. It began as a literary journal, but it gradually became a platform from which he advocated for abolition and black rights. His tone and approach were somewhat moderate, but given his residence in a border state where the war over slavery and freedom was raging for quite a few years before the formal declaration of the Civil War, this seems hardly surprising.

Snodgrass, Joseph Evans, “The Childless Mother,” American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation (Des Moines: Library of America, 2012)

This book is a collection of stories and essays that detail the history of the antislavery movement in the United States. It includes a number of essays by Joseph Evans Snodgrass. His work, “The Childless Mother,” first appeared in The Liberty Bell in 1847. It is a work of fiction that tells the story of a mother and her child. The mother was a free black woman who did not have her papers in order and so could do nothing when a man accused her of being his chattel and forced her into slavery. The story pre-dates Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and demonstrates the fact that abolitionists like Snodgrass had long used fiction and melodrama as a way to win sympathy for the plight of enslaved people.

Adapted from Annotated Bibliography by Gregory Williams

Samuel Meads

Newspapers.com, Online home to millions of historical newspapers, 2014

The public OCR text of a Baltimore Sun article from Saturday, December 3, 1842 is not a primary source document, however it did serve as a starting point for the research my partner and I began to do on Samuel Meads. This article identified Samuel Meads as a “colored man” who had been arrested for “aiding and abetting in the escape of four slaves” from the city of Baltimore. This text enabled us to find out the names of the arresting officers, the judge, the attorneys, and two witnesses. The text also told us that Meads took the slaves “just beyond Bel Air” in a carriage from Baltimore and that his bail had been increased from $300 to $1,000.

Baltimore Sun Collection, Ledger: May, 1842-Dec. 1842, Saturday December 3, 1842, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, AOK, Special Collections.

My partner was able to locate the original Baltimore Sun article from the Baltimore Sun Newspaper collection housed in the Albin O. Kuhn Library, Special Collections at UMBC. The original arrest report appeared on December 3, 1842.

Baltimore City Jail (City Criminal Docket) 1842-1844, C2057, December 1842, 1104, MSA C2057-6, MdHR#: 6662.

The Baltimore Sun sources led us to the Baltimore City Jail Criminal Docket for 1842-1844 where we hoped to find out more about  the outcome of Meads’ trial. The criminal docket for “Samuel Meeds, col’d,” reiterated some of the information from the Baltimore Sun and indicated that the trial was scheduled for Dec 16, 1842. The inclusion of the trial date was important for enabling us to track the aper trail of Meads’ arrest. It was also helpful to see that his name was spelled differently than it had been in the Baltimore Sun article, because that let us know we might have to consider different spellings as we continued our search for Samuel Meads.

Baltimore Sun Collection, Ledger: May, 1842-Dec. 1842, Saturday December 17, 1842, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, AOK, Special Collections.

Identifying the trial date in the Baltimore City Jail Criminal Docket allowed for further research into the Albin O. Kuhn Library, Special Collections at UMBC. My partner was able to locate an article from the Baltimore Sun dated Saturday, December 17, 1842 that re-examined Meads’ arrest. This article provided us with the names of the people who owned the enslaved people Meads had helped. They were Mr. Uriah Carpenter, Mrs. McSweeny, Mr. W. Whitman, and Mr. William Reese. Identifying the slave owners helped us plan the next course of our research: looking for any information relating to the owners. It is often better to start researching the slave owners as they would have more of a paper trail. For example, their names might be  attached to runaway ads or property records.

 Baltimore Sun Collection, “Runaway Advertisements, Mary Turner”, Ledger: May, 1842-Dec. 1842, Tuesday December 8, and Wednesday December 9, 1842, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, AOK, Special Collections.

We used the database at the Maryland State Archives Legacy of Slavery in Maryland website to search for these owners’ names. We were able to find a runaway ad placed by Uriah Carpenter and my partner was able to locate the original document at the Albin O. Kuhn Library, Special Collections. The ad described a “One Hundred Dollars Reward” for the return of one “Mary Turner” who apparently was also known as “Mary Small.” The ad included a physical description of Mary, including her age, approximate height, skin color, figure, and scar. The ad also indicated Mary was “rather surly when spoken to.” The ad also helped us locate Uriah Carpenter’s residence at the “corner of Sharp and Hill streets, Baltimore.”

Baltimore Sun Collection, Ledger: Jan, 1843-April 1843, Monday March 6, 1843, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, AOK, Special Collections.

This article detailing the outcome of State vs. Samuel Meads provided us with important information about Meads and helped us confirm the identities of the slaves he had assisted. Of course, it also gave us the result of his trial. Samuel Meads was, according to this document, a “free mulato.” This is important because it suggests that, as a free man, he was able to move more freely than an enslaved person. This accounts for his  ability to aid in the escape of slaves.
The document connected the names of the slaves with that of their owners, helping us to find the  full names of slave owners as well as an alternative spelling for Caroline McCeny (Mrs. McSweeny) and two more aliases for Mary Turner: Mary Smallwood and Maria Turner.
The case “occupied nearly two days in the development” and that two of the slaves whom Meads’ helped were present to testify against him and to confirm that they knew him before their escape. Meads’ acquaintances provided him with an alibi and the somewhat surprising outcome of the trial, based on this evidence, was that Samuel Meads was found not guilty.

Adapted from Annotated Bibliography for Samuel Meads by Kymberly Peters and Robin Martin

The Case of Thomas Mitchell: Finding Meaning in Limited Sources

The case of alleged fugitive slave Thomas Mitchell is both fascinating and confusing. Mitchell was apparently a slave of John Hayes of Cecil County, Maryland. Many years after he fled, Mitchell was captured by slave trader Thomas McCreary in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Mitchell had been living there, in close proximity to his employer, George Martin. Both Mitchell and Martin were guilty of undermining the institution of slavery. Mitchell was imprisoned in Wilson’s slave jail in Baltimore. Martin was arrested for depriving Mitchell’s master of his slave’s labor. Martin was quickly released and he returned to Chester County. Thomas Mitchell was vulnerable for sale to the Deep South. This is where Thomas Mitchell’s physical trail ends.

The case of Thomas Mitchell has many unanswered questions. Practically speaking, it is difficult to trace the facts of this case. Although there is almost no information on Mitchell the man, and only a little more on his owners, the story was apparently considered important. Newspapers on  both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line reported it, though the paper trail is filled with holes and accounts of Mitchell’s capture tend to vary by region. Southern editors used his capture as a way to threaten northern abolitionists and potential fugitive slaves. Northern abolitionists and anti-slavery activists portrayed Mitchell’s capture as an invasion of the free north by slave-catching riffraff. While the story rarely includes much about the men involved, it provides a window into how the meaning of freedom changed along borders, how those borders were used to perpetuate conflict and social control. This case also shows how sources can serve multiple purposes, even if they sometimes offer more questions than answers.

Pennsylvania Freeman (Philadelphia, PA). “The Chester County Abduction Case.” September 6, 1849.

This is clearly written by abolitionists. Although it tells the story of the Mitchell abduction, when viewed in conjunction with Maryland articles of the same event, it reveals the biases in both versions. However, perhaps the value of this article is in the confirmation it provides that Thomas (Albert) Mitchell’s fate. Although some online secondary sources state that Mitchell was purchased by the Quaker community that housed him, this article and the one from Cecil County confirm that Mitchell was left in the hands of a slave trader and sold south. The author also insists that Mitchell was not a fugitive and that he was a free man under Maryland law when he came to Chester County. The article is designed to stir outrage and make the case that Marylanders have no business or legal right to venture North to capture innocent people and profit off of their sale into bondage.

 The Cecil Democrat and Farmers’ Journal (Elkton, MD). “Slave Case.” September 1, 1849.

This article tells the story of Mitchell’s capture and sale from the point of view of his owner’s hometown in Elkton, Maryland. The editor clearly seeks to defend slavery and reinforce the social structure of white dominance. George Martin is painted not as a a humanitarian but as a middling abolitionist, someone who  agitates against slavery but isn’t willing to fully relieve the plight of the people for whom they advocate. The article uses Mitchell’s story as fable to warn slaves that they have no true friends in the North, and that if they try to run away, abolitionists will deny them and they will be sold into a worse fate in the deep south.

1830 U.S. Census Slave Assessment for John Hayes of Cecil County Maryland, source page 40.

In 1830, John Hayes is listed as owning three slaves, one male and one female under the age of ten, and a female between twenty-four and twenty-five. Although this source doesn’t name names, it does show what kind of slaveholder Hayes was. He wasn’t a large slaveholder, and he probably owned an enslaved mother and her children. We know Mitchell lived in Chester County for a few years before he was taken back to Maryland, but when he left is unclear and no runaway advertisements seem to exist. This lack of records could give merit to the claim that Mitchell was a free man rather than a slave.

 

 

Adapted from  The Case of Thomas Mitchell and Meaning in Limited Sources by Talbot Kuhn

Hope Slatter: A Maryland Slave Trader

Deyle, Steven Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade In America (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2005)

This book examines the business of slave trading in America and how it not only shaped the antebellum south but also American Society. The author mentions Hope Slatter and his influence on the business of slave trading and makes a connection between Hope Slatter and a British abolitionist named Joseph Sturge. Slatter apparently entered into a debate with Sturge, a story that is worth pursuing further as part of our project to map the changing meanings of slavery and freedom.

Pacheco. F Josephine The Pearl: A Failed Slave Escape on the Potomac (Chapel Hill and London:    University of North Carolina Press, 2005)

This book recounts an attempt by 76 slaves to seek freedom in Pennsylvania aboard a ship named The Pearl.  Hope Slatter played a role in thwarting their efforts, and, according to the author, so angered New York Congressman, John I. Slingerland, that he set in motion the events that would end the slave trade in Washington, DC.

Prince, Brian One More River To Cross (Dundurn Press, 2014)

This book recounts the story of Isaac Brown, a black man who was found guilty of attempted murder in Maryland.  As punishment, Brown was sold to Hope Slatter who promptly sent Brown to New Orleans to be sold into slavery in the deep south. From there, however, he made a daring escape to Pennsylvania. Brown described his time in Slatter’s slave prison as well as his interactions with the notorious slave dealer.

www.signalofliberty.com. Ann Arbor District Library Accessed November 3, 2014.

The Ann Arbor District Library contains a collection of the Signal of Liberty, an anti-slavery newspaper published by an abolitionist in Michigan. Hope Slatter is the subject of several articles, including a study of the slave slave sale advertisements Slatter ran in the Baltimore Sun and reports on a variety of legal cases in which he was involved. This source helps demonstate that Slatter was a significant figure in the slave trade, and he was a frequent subject of abolitionist agitation.

Struge, Joseph A Visit To The United States In 1841 (Carlisle, Massachusetts:  Applewood Books, 1842)

This is a narrative written by a British abolitionist who came to the United States to witness the horrors of the slavery. He met the, apparently, charismatic and charming Hope Slatter who gave Sturge a tour of his Baltimore Slave Pen. Sturge reports feeling both appalled by the treatment of people held in captivity by Slatter and also enamored of Slatter himself. The two main maintained a correspondence.  The sections of the book that depict the relationship between the two men raise interesting questions about the political climate of slavery and abolition in the 1830s and early 1840s.

Adapted from  Annotated Bibliography for future project by Francis Mohammed for a collaborative project with Yamid Andres Macias

Family Over Freedom

The Chesapeake region, often neglected when thinking of “The South,” was a slave society. Once a mostly tobacco producing plantation system, by the 1830’s, the region’s economy had transitioned  to railroad construction, manufacturing and boating.  It is during this period, Calvin Schermerhorn argues, that slaves in the region put the defense of family ties above individual freedom and relied on social networks and the slave economy itself to keep their families together. Both enslaved and master felt pressured by the growing economy, but in different ways.  “Tidewater grandees (Masters) complained that their holdings in slave families were making them poor [, and] growing black families …cost them food, shelter, and clothing” and they sold, rented or leased out their slaves to support to booming industries, and not to mention put money in their own pocket (5).  Enslaved people on the other hand felt an increased strain on their family ties.  Already, the average “enslaved [person] had to prepare to lose a family member every decade,” now slaves prepared not only for the threat of sale to southern cotton fields, but now for separation within the new intensifying market with limitless unknown destinations (13).

To combat this, “enslaved people sought to defend blood kin from the worst aspects of the market by participating in it” (20–21). Using the market to their benefit, they took advantage of opportunities to avoid sale or relocation by building an internal network, which Schermerhorn defines as “strategic ties and sets of exchanges” that provide “human and material resources as well as information” (24). Enslaved people assembled their network slowly each day, by building connections with allies and patrons, especially white patrons and freed blacks; connecting with “coworkers” in fields, on boats, or riding trains; and collecting and saving small sums of money from wages and errands.  In some instances, these networks were not only vital for keeping families together, but also for relocating and reuniting displaced family members.

Schermerhorn explores the challenges of the enslaved people using individual narratives in five different chapters “Networkers,” “Watermen,” “Domestics, “Makers,” and “Railroaders.” In the first chapter, “Networkers,” Schermerhorn uses the tales of Solomon Bayley and Charles Ball as examples to illustrate how enslaved people “sought to order their world” by building networks to ensure their family connections (24). For Solomon Bayley the Methodist church and the court played and vital role in keeping his family together; the church helped purchase his son and helped support his during his court cases suing for both freedom and recognized marriage rights. After starting his journey to freedom in 1799, by 1813, the Bayley family had spent all their savings and credit “to buy their freedom,” but they were free and they were together (39).  For Charles Ball, the ability to build new a flexible network was a vital skill. He was separated from his family three times, and three different times he designed plans to travel from the south, once from South Carolina and once from Georgia to return to Calvert County, Maryland.  Unfortunately, on his third trip back, he arrived in Maryland only to discover that his family taken by kidnappers and sold into slavery in the Deep South.

In the second chapter, “Watermen,” Schermerhorn explains how maritime workers used the mobility, flexibility and occasional wages afforded by the work on the boats to build far reaching networks that stretched beyond their local or regional areas. In the case of Moses Grandy, A North Carolina, this networking enabled him to buy his freedom. Six masters owned Grandy during his lifetime, and he lost four generations of family members; as well as, his pregnant wife and six children to slave traders.  In 1814, Grandy worked on Dismal Swamp canal boats as a pilot and ship manager, but while his resources were not sufficient to thwart the sale of his wife and child, he was able to earn enough money purchase his own freedom for the hefty sum of $1,850.  However, while these openings and resources provided opportunities for enslaved people to protect family ties or attain freedom they networks were essentially fragile.  As Wilmington tugboat hand, Peter Robinson learned when He traveled to California in 1850 to earn better wages in the goldfields, and found himself instead kidnapped and sold into slavery.

“Domestics,” the subject of the third chapter, lacked interstate mobility of watermen, and used their wits, interpersonal skills, sentiment, and sexuality to recruit allies in kitchens, parlors, and regions. Schermerhorn explains the Domestics exploited the area market for resource accumulation and resorted to desperate strategies to hold families together, building networks that crossed class, gender, race, and generational lines to avoid separation at the auction house. Corinna Hinton and Mary F. Lumpkin became domestic partners with slave traders out of self-preservation and bargained to protect other slaves and tending prisoners awaiting sale.  Harriet Jacobs escaped the sexual violence of her master in Edenton, but faced separation from her children as a result.  Molly Horniblow, Jacobs’s grandmother, used a vast network of love and loyalty to hide Jacobs in the attic of her bakery for seven years.

In the last two chapters Schermerhorn explores the networking of “Makers” (the factory workers) and “Railroaders.” “Companies employed enslaved labor to construct new roads, maintain existing tracks, service trains in depots, and ride the rails as firemen, brakemen, porters, and stewards” providing  makers and railroader similar networking opportunities to watermen (p. 165).  In the case of Henry Brown, an enslaved cigar maker, he used wages earned by exceeding his factory quota to lease his wife Nancy from her master and rent a house where they could live together.  However, as commercialization increased and slave trading moved further south, enslaved families began to struggle to maintain their networks of protective family ties.

Schermerhorn closes the book by repeating that the late antebellum Chesapeake region was a “slave market society” (202), powered by the slave family and its reproduction of human capital. Essentially, the Society was fueled by the slaveholders’ choosing “Money of Mastery — hiring out slaves as labor; and “within a hierarchy of values, the enslaved chose family over freedom” (p. 210).

Adapted from Family Over Freedom by Megan Hardy

On the Borders of Slavery and Race

Stanley Harrold “On the Borders of Slavery and Race:  Charles T. Torrey and the Underground Railroad” Journal of the Early Republic, Volume 20, Number 2 (Summer, 2000), pp. 273-292.

In “On the Borders of Slavery and Race,” Stanley Harrold explores the contributions made by white abolitionists in the Underground Railroad movement. Specifically, he examines the involvement of Charles T. Torrey and the circumstances that led him to become interested in helping the slave communities of the south, including those in Maryland. In addition, the author addresses some of the discrepancies that have existed among historians “concerning the involvement of white abolitionists…the extension of their activities in the South, and the relationship of the antislavery movement to the sectional conflict” (p. 275). He shows that Torrey’s participation in abolition contributed to “his arrest on charges of helping slaves escape, his imprisonment in the Maryland Penitentiary, and his death there in 1846” (p. 274). He suggests that the Underground Railroad movement benefited significantly from the participation of white abolitionists such as Charles T. Torrey who despite the many issues they faced at the time, they were able to break-down racial barriers and promote interracial organizations.

In addition to analyzing the involvement of Charles T. Torrey, the author also aims to dispel the notion that this movement needs to be examined from a compartmentalized perspective. That is, he suggests that despite the myriad of articles proposing otherwise, there is enough evidence to suggest that both African Americans and whites worked together for abolition of slavery. In order to validate this claim the author focuses on relationship between Torrey and Thomas Smallwood. Thomas Smallwood was an African American man who was born into slavery in Prince George’s County and later emancipated. Soon after, he committed to helping other African Americans achieve freedom. He was also a prominent member of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church of Washington. The two men met near Washington D.C. and “created what Smallwood called ‘our new underground railroad’” (p. 283). The relationship between the two suggests that both men shared many similarities and qualities. In fact, as the author suggests, these similarities are what turned the movement into a biracial effort. The article seems to suggest that there is significant evidence to propose that white abolitionists did more than just harbor those who were fleeing slavery. With that in mind, it would be helpful to determine how many people and to what extent Charles T. Torrey helped in the state of Maryland.

Adapted from Critical Summaries of Existing Literature by Yamid Macias

Freedom Suits

In “Freedom Suits, African American Women, and the Genealogy of Slavery,” Loren Scheweninger demonstrates the importance that African American played in preserving the history of slavery. Enslaved people relied on oral history as a way to seek and, in some cases, successfully achieve their freedom. People who had white ancestry and had evidence (usually the testimony of others) to demonstrate it in the courts challenged legal definitions of race as well as increasingly restrictive laws regarding slavery. During the 18th century understandings of race were still in flux, and hundreds of African American men and women to file lawsuits against their masters challenging the law in order to pursue freedom.

Schweninger focuses on the enslaved descendants of Maria, a Spanish or Portuguese woman (her actual place of origin is still unknown) who was brought to Maryland and sold into slavery in 1686. Although she was not of African descent, her racial status was ill defined. She was categorized as an indentured slave, working on Robert Lockwood’s farm near Anne Arundel County. In the decades that followed, the different individuals who were directly related to Maria –identified by the author as the Boston family– were passed down and resold as slaves despite their ill-defined racial status. Beginning in 1795, many of them were successful in pursuing their freedom through the Maryland courts. The oral testimony of twenty-four free and enslaved African Americans who acknowledged Maria’s white ancestry (as the story was passed down by their relatives and neighbors) were pivotal for the few members of the Boston family that achieved their freedom. The author puts special emphasis on the oral depositions of Anne Brown. This is because she was the daughter of Mary Brown, an African American woman who knew Maria when she was alive and who was responsible to pass that information down to her relatives.

Although Schweninger’s focus is on the Boston family and Maria herself, throughout the article she also presents examples of other similar cases. Several biracial individuals who were held in bondage testified that their white relatives had been in consensual relationships with enslaved people. She also discusses how and to what extent the Maryland court system allowed (at least temporarily) enslaved people to use the same legal resources that were generally for white people only. As a result, the court’s decision to allow the different plaintiffs to use hearsay (be it from free or enslaved blacks or white people) “reveals a legal system that was more egalitarian at that moment than it would be for generations to come” (p. 41).

As a whole by examining freedom suits, this article provides scholars and students alike with a succinct analysis of some of the legal maneuvers that many African American relied on to seek their freedom. But more importantly, as indicated by the author, these “Freedom suits reveal cultural interactions among slaves, free blacks, and whites; the power that court actions could give to those held in bondage; and the role of African American women in maintaining family histories and sustaining oral traditions” (p. 37). Moreover, considering that Anne Brown and several other slaves who helped in the lawsuits resided near Anne Arundel County in a section of Maryland that is also known as the Swamp, both the Swamp and Brown are worth examining even further. In fact, for the purpose of our project, there is a possibility that their stories could provide us with relevant information regarding the preservation of oral history among enslaved people in the state of Maryland.

Adapted from Critical Summaries of Existing Literature by Yamid Macias

Thinking about Slavery

During the first half of the fall semester, 2014, student contributors to this project had two major tasks.

First, they analyzed work related to the interpretation of slavery that had been produced by public history scholars and practitioners. Together, we used this body of scholarship to identify the shortcomings in public interpretations of slavery. Students reflected on their findings, and they identified several interpretive problems that stand in the way of effective and engaging interpretation of slavery at historic sites, in museums, and online. At the most basic level, the problem can be summarized this way:  slavery has been marginalized in the public sector. At some sites, it has been obliterated –slave quarters destroyed by neglect or active removal. At others, it has been set aside from a core interpretive narrative —the word “slave” replaced by “servant,” interpretive programs about slavery offered outside a plantation house, off site, and only to those who request them. Core narratives focus on wealthy and influential white people, and slavery is –at best– interpreted as an unfortunate symbol of their wealth. At the same time, where the history of slavery is interpreted, it is typically represented as the purview of African American History. In some ways this is benign. However, it has also  tended to reinforce the marginalization of slavery, segregating it as a story that belongs to some Americans but not to others.

Students also mined the work of public history scholars and practitioners to identify some strategies that had potential to shape a new and more successful publicly-oriented interpretation of slavery. Cheryl LaRoche challenged students to rethink geography and topography. She reminded us that geographical and communal boundaries are constructions. By viewing these boundaries through a multi-disciplinary lens –history, archaeology, anthropology–  we can re-draw maps,  making the experience of slavery and freedom visible and central to the way we understand the nation spatially as well as culturally. James Horton and others called on us to imagine new methods of storytelling that might craft an inclusive past, one not segregated by “white” history and “black” history, but rather one that foregrounds relationships and connections. Doing so requires us to break out of the limiting view of “good” and “bad” people and pasts in order to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the way average people shaped American identity, memory, and history over time. To that end, Antoinette Jackson challenged us to recognize memory and oral traditions as central to the construction of a meaningful past. While historians may be loathe to include sources they see as ahistorical in any work of scholarship, reaching out to descendant communities can shed light on the contemporary relevance and lingering meaning of slavery and its interpretation.

Next, students explored formal scholarship on the history of slavery and freedom in the border states, particularly focusing on the relationship between Maryland and Pennsylvania. It’s fair to say that –unconsciously– they approached this work differently than the work of public historians. Trained in historiography, they were ready to identify the ways in which ideas and arguments about slavery have evolved over time inside the discipline, and they were adept at identifying themes and trends that could serve as the backdrop of our public project. Their critical summaries are linked through the bibliography here.

Interestingly, however, they did not always immediately recognize that scholarship on slavery also presents problems and strategies for the production of new public interpretations. For example, a significant theme in the historiography relates to its economic impact. In many of the early works, then, enslaved people appear mostly as foils against which to measure economic change over time –a problem that precisely relates to the ways in which slavery has been marginalized at many historic sites. Only more recently, have scholars begun to turn the mirror around, examining the ways in which economic relationships among enslaved and free workers sheds light on the construction of class, race, and gender over time. Similarly, the rise of African American history opened up important new scholarship on African American resistance to slavery as abolitionists and freedom seekers. This work humanized enslaved people, but sometimes merely replaced a focus on whites with a focus on blacks, missing the opportunity to foreground relationships.

On the other hand, traditional scholars have had more freedom than public historians to document, describe, and interpret violence as a process by which identities and experience are shaped. Interpreting violence at public history sites is difficult. It is too easy to sensationalize it as evidence of past savagery. Yet, the persistence of racial violence in our culture as a method of social control and geographical boundary enforcement indicates it is something we cannot and should not avoid in the field of public history.

If there is one thing all the student contributors agree on, it is this:  exploring the history of slavery and freedom can open up important and meaningful questions about contemporary American culture, and the best way to do that is to foreground the actions and experiences of people living, working, negotiating, and resisting the social, cultural, political, and economic forces that limited their actions.

 

 

Gleanings of Freedom

In Gleanings of Freedom: Free & Slave Labor Along the Mason-Dixon Line, 1790-1860, Max Grivno explores how understanding “the lives of the men and women who worked the land along the Mason-Dixon Line open[s] a window onto the evolution of race, class, and labor regimes in the early national and antebellum United States (page 6).” Grivno examines “a narrow swath of territory near the Mason-Dixon Line;” specifically, “six Maryland counties that abutted the sectional border (Baltimore, Carroll, Cecil, Harford, Frederick, and Washington.) (page 9)”

Grivno’s basic argument is that “unfree and free labor balanced each other; slaves could be used to bring unwieldy free workers to heel, and hired help was needed to keep the relatively inflexible system of slavery running smoothly (page 7).” He aims to write a history that integrates the stories of free blacks, slaves, women, itinerant laborers, skilled workers, and landowners, cutting against historians’ tendency to separate histories of slavery from that of other forms of labor.  He writes, “the boundaries of labor regimes and the meanings of workers’ statuses are best viewed through a shifting lens that is capable of viewing individual groups of workers in detail, of expanding outward to view the workforce as a whole, and of widening to encompass the larger national and international forces that interacted with local processes to shape the landscape of slavery and free labor.” (296)

One of Grivno’s most convincing arguments is that the small wheat growing region (formerly tobacco) in northern Maryland is inextricably linked to the booms and busts of external markets.  Grivno’s argument advances in a chronological order, following changing labor patterns and the decay of slavery from the end of the American Revolutionary period to the antebellum period right before the Civil War.  With the closing of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Grivno argues that slavery was declining in Maryland because farmers could not manage to compete in the global wheat market as prices plummeted. As a result, landowners sought to rid themselves of fixed property, including slaves.  The economic panic of 1819 led to a further erosion of slavery in northern Maryland as landowners scrambled to sell slaves they no longer needed (since wheat required only was seasonal labor support) to the Deep South where burgeoning plantations of sugar and cotton were beginning to require greater numbers of slaves to ensure large profits. At the same time, as Maryland’s enslaved people were becoming increasingly vulnerable to being sold South as part of an interstate slave trade, many migrated north in an escape to freedom.

As some slaves escaped North and others slaves were sold South, northern Maryland wheat farmers experimented with new labor arrangements.  As demand for year-round agricultural labor decreased, it made more economic sense to retain only a small number of laborers year round and to hire more when needed during harvest season.  Thus the labor force in the border counties on which Grivno is focused became an amalgamation that included slaves, free blacks, and indentured servants—“northern Maryland was a region where ‘slavery was just one form of labor among many’ and where ‘slavery was just one form of labor among many’ and where ‘no one presumed the master-slave relationship to be the social exemplar.’” (11)

Grivno’s work presents an important example of how to make the history of slavery relevant and central to the American story. Gleanings of Freedom is an inclusive history that connects the stories of slaves, freedmen and women, poor white laborers, and the landowners. These connections enable us to begin to address larger, thorny, and persistent questions about race and identity in American culture —“If you don’t tell it like it was . . . it can never be as it ought to be.” (Blight in Horton, 33)

Adapted from Northern Maryland: “Where slavery & free labor jostled, mingled, & merged” by Heidi Carbaugh