Essays on Slave Communities
From Sunrise to Sunset: Beneath the Underground Interns' Essays on Slave Life in Maryland
Part of the internship program at the Maryland State Archives was structured towards original research on how ex-slaves depicted their lives in Maryland before they became free. The following series of essays are the result of the interns' study.
- Childhood in Slavery
- Interracial Connections
- Slave Community
- Slaves and Religion
- Work and Leisure
- Masculinity and Feminity
- Slavery, Resistance and Flight
Interracial Relations in Antebellum Maryland
by Tanya Hardy
In Antebellum Maryland, the institution of slavery influenced all interactions between whites and blacks. A main point of contact between slaves and white Marylanders was the auction house. Legally, slaves were chattel and considered by their owners to simply be a piece of property. At auction, slaves were treated as if they were a piece of furniture or an automobile. Buyers judged the value of men according to their stockiness and their ability to work. For women, their value was based on their breeding abilities as well as their strength to work. Children were purchased for domestic service.
The auctioning process was horrible for the slaves. Women, men, and children were sold, and any signs of resistance were punished with a severe beating. Josiah Henson wrote in his autobiography of being separated from his mother at a slave auction. Henson wrote that he felt "deep pity and devotional [feelings as] my brothers and sisters were bid off one by one, while my mother, holding my hand looked on in agony..my mother distracted with the parting forever from all her children pushed through the crowd, while bidding for me was going on. . . she fell to her feet and clung to" Master R's knees begging him " to buy her baby."1 Master R kicked Henson's mother to remove her from his leg. Despite his mother's pleas, Henson was then sold. Henson later stated that such a scene was all too familiar for auctioned slaves.
As an enslaved child, Tom Johnson wrote that his first understanding of slavery came when his older sister was sold. Slaves were sold away from their families with little concern for their feelings. For instance, Frederick Douglass recalled one slave being sold because he stated the truth when asked about the treatment received by his master. Not knowing his master heard his answers, the slave answered the questions openly.
"Well, boy, who do you belong to?"
"To Col. Loyd," replied the slave.
"No sir," the slave replied.
"What! Does he work you too hard?"
"Yes, sir." " Well don't he give you enough to eat?"
"Yes, sir, he gives me enough, such as it is."2
The colonel then rode on. Three weeks later this poor man was sold as punishment to a master in the deep South, were slaves feared to go.
There were daily interactions between whites, black slaves and free blacks. Though whites and blacks sometimes came into contact with one another during religious gatherings and work, they also came into contact at times of resistance and flight from slavery. There were also many interactions between free blacks and enslaved blacks. Thomas Foote, a free black by virtue of the fact that his mother's father was free, worked for Dr. Ensor, a homeopathies medical doctor of Cockeysville. Dr. Ensor's wife was a very refined woman who taught Eliza, a free black, to read and write. Her duties, along with assisting Doctor Ensor, were to help him make some of his medicine. Eliza eventually perfected many remedies herself. She used these remedies to help herself and other free and enslaved blacks.3
Eliza became well known for her ability to heal others, and made a name for herself from Baltimore City to Pennsylvania. She delivered babies and acted as midwife for many poor whites, slaves, and free blacks in the area. Eliza Foote was trusted by the colored people, but made some whites uneasy. When one slave from an area near her neighborhood ran away, Eliza was accused of practicing voodoo. She was jailed, and was threatened with being sold into slavery if she did not leave Baltimore County. She fled, and made her way to Pennsylvania. Whether her children and husband accompanied her is not clear in the record, but it would seem that they did not.4
Caroline Hammond's family made the escape to Pennsylvania that Eliza's probably did not. Hammond's father, George Berry, was a freeman who had only forty dollars left to pay on his wife's freedom. When his Master died and Mrs. Davidson took over she refused to accept the money. This prompted the Davidsons to leave Davidsonville so that they could live together as a free family. George Berry bribed the local sheriff to obtain passage to Baltimore for Caroline and her mother. When they arrived in Baltimore, the family took shelter with a white family on Druid Hill Avenue (Ross St. at the time). The occupants were ardent supporters of the Underground Railroad.5 There was a reward offered by Mrs. Davidson of fifty-dollars for each family member, but it was never collected. The Berry family made their way to Pennsylvania. A Mr. Coleman used a large covered wagon to transport the family to Hanover PA, where Coleman's brother lived. On their journey they never spoke to nor made contact with other people so they would not be recognized and captured. The Berry family finally settled in Pennsylvania. Caroline later returned to Maryland where she finished grammar school, worked as a cook, and eventually married.
Parson Williams, a freeman, had frequent interaction with white Marylanders, as did his father Parson Williams Sr. They worked for influential white Marylanders including George Washington and Robert Bowie. Robert Bowie was the first Democratic governor to be elected in Maryland and served as a presidential elector for Madison. He was also a director of the first bank established in Annapolis. After working for Bowie, the elder Williams was later employed at Mt. Vernon by Washington, where he worked as a servant and as a hostler. Parson Williams himself worked for Mr. Oden Bowie who later became governor of Maryland.
In many cases, whites were often kind to blacks. Whites aided some slaves to escape, allowed slaves to purchase themselves, and taught slaves to read and write. Many of the whites who gave aid to enslaved blacks were Quakers. The Quakers were a religious group highly opposed to slavery. Quakers would often go to great lengths to help blacks escape from bondage even at the risk of being ousted from their communities for such acts of kindness. Arthur Leverton, a white man and a Quaker, was forced to leave Maryland after being threatened with lynching for supposedly harboring fugitives. Leverton's wife and ten children were forced to leave as well.
While there were instances of cooperation between blacks and whites, there were many more instances of friction cased by the slave system. In Caroline Hammond's narrative she described her owner Mr. Davidson as being "very good to his slaves, treating them with every consideration he could.". However, Hammond claimed Mrs. Davidson was very hard on the slaves whenever she had the opportunity. She said Mrs. Davidson would often work them as hard as she could at full speed. She claimed Mrs. Davidson would give the slaves bad food and not much of it at all. Apparently, Mrs. Davidson was a daughter of the Revells, a family known throughout Maryland for their brutality with their slaves.6
Blinking an eyelid would sometimes be enough reason for punishment, as masters often seemed to find pleasure in whipping their slaves. Mistresses, overseers, white children, other masters had the authority to punish slaves. White children, raised in the slave system were very disrespectful of blacks. White children were often held as superior to all blacks, no matter their age. According to Leonard Black, "Mrs. Bradford," (his masters wife) "had a son about ten years old; she used to make him beat me and spit in my face."7 While according to John Thompson, his master's son, "when at home from school, he would frequently request his grandmother's permission, to call all the black children from their quarters to the house, to sweep an clear the yard from weeds, and etc. in order that he might oversee them. Then, whip in hand, he walked about among them, and sometimes lashed the poor little creatures, who had on nothing but a shirt, and often nothing at all, until the blood streamed down their backs and limbs apparently for no reason whatever, except to gratify his own cruel fancy."8 Severe beatings were used to break a slave's spirit. Slave owners also used the fear of punishment or humiliation to enforce discipline. According to John Thompson on his plantation his master Mr. Wager, "would follow after slaves, to see if he could find any left, (tobacco worms) and if so, to compel the person in whose row they were found, to eat them. This was done to render them more careful."9 When Lewis was young, he was chastised in the most "fashioned" form for not being able to carry a large amount of lumber. Masters were also known to have forced their male slaves dress up in women's clothing and parade around in front of others, as well as their families, in order to disgrace them. Other forms of public humiliation included slaves being forced to whip one another. Some slaves claimed mothers were forced to whip the father, the father was made to whip the grandmother, and children to whip their parents.
Education was another area of conflict and occasional cooperation between blacks and whites in antebellum Maryland. Take for example Frederick Douglass, who did not receive a formal education. Douglass stated, "I used to carry almost constantly, a copy of Webster's spelling book in my pocket; and when sent of errands, or when playtime was allowed me, I would step, with my young friends (white children) aside, and take a lesson in spelling."10 Douglass stated that he would trade his daily bread for his lessons obtained from the "white children." Douglass took his earnings and purchased an educational book called the "Columbus Orator." With this book, Douglass began to teach himself how to read.
Whites often times frowned upon blacks. If caught learning, a black could be severely punished. When caught obtaining an education from his masters wife, Douglass's master fumed, "If you give a nigger an inch, he will take a ell. . . he should know nothing but the will of his master, and obey it. . .Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. . . If you teach that nigger how to read the bible. There will be no keeping him. . . It would forever unfit him for the duties of a slave. . .As himself, learning would do him no good; but probably, a great deal of harm-making him disconsolate and unhappy. . .If you learn him now to read, he will want to know how to write; and, this accomplished he'll be running away with himself."11 Some whites found literate colored people to be a novelty rather than a threat. Thomas Smallwood, an ex-slave, was often stopped on the street by whites and asked to read and spell words for them. They would watch in amazement as he did so. Education was part of black resistance to slavery in antebellum Maryland. Frederick Douglass was a witty and educated individual who drafted up his own papers claming he had permission to travel when he was actually fleeing slavery.
In a more direct act of resistance, Josiah Henson's father severely beat an overseer because the overseer severely beat Josiah's mother. Although serious repercussions followed these rebellious acts slaves still performed acts of resistance. Blacks escaped whenever the time was right. Slave owners posted rewards and articles for their return. When advertising for the return of his slave, Phill Carter observed "it is very possible that he has gone to Baltimore, as his father is living there Howard's Hill, and is a drayman, His name (father) is James Carter."12 Masters placed ads, put out calls, and offered rewards for the return of their "property." If not slaves were not returned immediately, in some instances masters went to such great extremes as to kidnap free members of the runaway slave's family. Masters sometimes placed wagers on if the slave would be returned, or if they would return voluntarily. Slaves were often severely punished on their return. Interactions between blacks and whites in antebellum Maryland were complex, and deeply influenced by the institution of slavery. Blacks were often persecuted, owned, assaulted, humiliated, and repressed by white Marylanders. However, there were also many instances where white Marylanders, at great risk to themselves, gave aid, education, and support to both enslaved and free blacks.