Slaveholders in Maryland used slaves to cultivate wheat and tobacco, or to perform domestic work and skilled labor. Slave owners saw their slaves as property, sources of revenue, status symbols and important investments. They also saw them as dangerous threats who needed to be controlled and kept at bay. Owners feared runaways would encourage other slaves to escape-or rebel. When slaves escaped, masters might punish those who remained.
Ricksom Webb was a free black man who owned slaves, an unusual but not unheard of situation. Like his white counterparts, he enforced the cruelties of slave labor system in Maryland. Owning slaves possibly elevated Webb's status in society, even among whites. Webb owned at least six slaves, including Alfred, who tried to escape from his Caroline County farm in 1844.
Rev. John Ashton, a Jesuit priest at the White Marsh Church in Prince George's County, lost many slaves who not only ran away, but who also challenged him in court. Two groups of slaves escaped from Ashton at the end of the eighteenth century. The Queen family, a group of twelve, fled in 1795. Three years later, brother Charles and Patrick Mahoney also ran away. Both groups unsuccessfully sued Ashton for their freedom. Ashton manumitted the Mahoney brothers in 1804, but the Queen family remained in slavery.
Ashton and Webb challenge the traditional portrait of slave owners. As a clergyman and a free black, respectively, they illustrate that slavery was an institution which sometimes outweighed moral and racial conventions.