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
- Interratial Connections
- Slave Community
- Slaves and Religion
- Work and Leisure
- Masculinity and Feminity
- Slavery, Resistance and Flight
The Slave Community
by Adelsia Braxton
The life of a slave in Maryland varied from county to county, plantation to plantation. The WPA Narratives are a collection of interviews that speak to the different experience of slaves in Maryland. While slave narratives tell the stories of individuals, the experiences of slaves from Maryland had much in common. This essay explores the common experiences of slaves which combined to form the features of slave society.
When looking at the form and function of the community within slave culture, the majority of the narratives make clear the presence of a master, a mistress, and or an overseer. In most of the narratives, the presence of either one or both of a slave's parents is clear, as well as the existence of other blood relatives. There are, however, some exceptions, such as the example of Lucy Brooks. In her interview Brooks does not make any mention of her parents. The assumption then is that her parents either died or were sold. Which ever is the case, the absence of her parents then put the other slaves or her owner in the position of being responsible for raising her. Her narrative suggests that Mrs. Anne Garner, Brook's owner, was the primary parental figure in her life. The main evidence for this interpretation is the familiar way in which Garner is referred to throughout the interview. Brooks does not refer to Garner as Mrs. Garner or Mistress, which was common at the time. Instead Garner is identified as either, "Miss Anne" or as "The Missus."1 Also, throughout the interview there are present certain phrases which point to just how close of a relationship the two may have had. Brooks' states how she had no qualms with Garner wanting to send her to Baltimore to become a nurse, "Oh I thought that was fine."2 Brooks also tells us that even after the war she chose to stay on to help Garner around the for several years before, venturing out on her own.3 Some would make the argument that the reason Brooks stayed was because, like many other newly freed blacks at the time, she did not have any other choice but to remain on the plantation on which she resided. However, I believe from the tone of the interview that she stayed on out of concern and regard for Garner.
The narrative of Charles Coles offers an example of slave owners as parental figures. Charles Coles states that he never "knew his parents, or any other relatives, and that he was raised on a large farm owned by a man by the name of Silas Dorsey."4 Coles says that "he and the other slaves were a part of the Dorseys' family group."5 Coles speaks of the Dorsey family with the same regard and affection one might speak of their own family. Commenting on the character of Dorsey he states that, "Dorsey was a fine Christian gentleman.a man of excellent reputation, loved by all black and white, especially his slaves."6
Coles gives a further account of how the Dorseys related to their slaves on a more familial level. When he speaks of the role of caretaker that the Dorseys assumed, where they provided for the slaves as best they could. The slaves, according to Coles, were kept in relatively comfortable accommodations and quarters. They were provided with clothes that were in good condition and suitable to the climate.7 The Dorseys made themselves responsible for the religious and spiritual guidance of their slaves.8 When the slaves were ill, they were attended to by the by the Dorseys' family doctor.9 These are further examples of the familial ties that existed between the Dorseys' and their slaves.
James Wiggins, another ex-slave, did not know either of his parents. His father died while working in Philadelphia to earn money to purchase his wife's freedom.10 It is not clear as to what happened to his mother but the assumption can again be made that she either died or was sold away. And so again, we have another circumstance in which, the other slaves or the owners are left with the duty of raising James.
The Revells reared Wiggins until the age of about nine or ten.11 He mentions that he was given the nickname of "Gingerbread." This is an indication of the Revells' role as parents, for it is quite a common occurrence for parents to give their children nicknames. And although Phillip Johnson, another interviewee, knew both his parents, his mother died when he was a small boy. The absence of Wiggins' mother is what led his Mistress to assume the role both parent and protector. The Mistress protected James as a boy from an abusive overseer.12 All of these narratives give examples of how, in the absence of blood parents and other blood relations, often it was the owners themselves who assumed that role.
Though these narratives provide examples of how slaves without the presence of their parents functioned, most of the narratives present an extended nuclear family. This included the presence one or both parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. For many of these slaves, life took place on plantations or on small farms. On these plantations and farms, if slaves had other blood relatives present they often shared residences. The dwellings of slaves were similar in style on many plantations. Cabins were fashioned in the usual style of log or stone, with one room upstairs and one room downstairs, plus a window in each. There was also a fireplace that was used to heat the house and cook the food.13
Most of these houses were sparsely furnished, consisting of no more than two beds at most. Homemade bunk beds with two mattresses filled with straw were quite common. Richard Macks says that his father would use a workbench as a bed at night.14 Macks himself slept in a homemade bunk bed. As previously stated there is, the presence of other relatives on the plantations, which, surely gave way to much interaction between the slaves, during their childhood.
Lucy Brooks mentions how as a young slave girl, she and other slave girls had a playhouse.15 James V. Deane talks of working with other small boys in the fields and playing games with them such as marbles, mumble pegs, and ring plays. A popular children's' song of the time was London Bridge.16 Richard Macks recalls how he, worked in the field with other small children and used to run races with other boys, play marbles, and have jumping contests.17 James Wiggins recalls being very fond of dancing, and that his two favorite dances were, the jig and the buck.18 He also states "we played the children's games of that time which were, tops, marbles and, another game called skinny, that was played on tree and grape vines."19
Slave children's lives were based on the combination of work and play. Many of those interviewed were not forced to endure hard labor as children. For instance, Lucy Brooks was responsible for picking up goose feathers in the yard. When she got a little older, it was her responsibility to set the table.20 Menellis Gassaway's family was the only slave family living on his farm.21 Their duties, in which the whole family participated, were to raise vegetables and stock such as hogs for food.22 Tom Randall, worked along with his mother in the Howard House Inn and Tavern. This was the central meeting place for many of Howard and Frederick County's most prominent farmers, lawyers and businessmen. His mother was the head cook at Howard House,23 and Randall assisted his mother by carrying wood into the kitchen, emptying potato rinds, cabbage leaves, and the leaves and tops of other plants.24
James Wiggins was responsible for putting logs on the fireplaces in the Revells' house and performing other household duties.25 James V. Deane worked with other boys, thinning corn and watching watermelon patches.26 Phillip Johnson worked in lowland areas raising mostly wheat and grain.27 Richard Macks worked around the farm itself, principally in the tobacco fields and in the woods cutting timber and firewood.28 When these children got older much they were given more laborious work to do. Work expectations varied depending on the size of the farm a slave lived on. One thing that is clear in the narratives is the distinction made between housework and fieldwork, though there are some slaves who did both.
Caroline Hammonds' mother was a house slave. She worked as a supervising cook in the Davidson household.29 Her Uncle Billie served and waited on the guests that the Davidsons often entertained. But her father was a freeman who made his living as a carpenter. Her father, George Berry would hire out his services to both white and free blacks in the area.30 Dennis Simms and his brother also named George worked in the tobacco fields at the Contee plantation in Prince Georges County.31 Simms himself worked in the stables and would saddle the horses and make fires.32 Page Harris was born at Bloodhound Manor, owned by the Staffords. This was a training ground for bloodhounds who, were often sold to slave catchers who wanted to hunt and capture runaway slaves.33 Other slaves on the plantation are mentioned as holding positions as mechanics and carpenters.34 Richard Macks recalls how he often watched his mother go join the other slaves and take part the farming.35 Macks also says that because he was a house slave that he would do work around the stables which gave him an opportunity to meet people, some of whom would give him pennies for his work. He also mentioned that his father was the colored overseer and that slaves were sure to obey him if they wanted to be remain in good faith with their owner.36
The work done by slaves slightly differed when in an urban setting. Jim Taylor tells us that his family was owned by a Mr. Davis of St. Michaels.37 Mr. Davis owned and operated several small boats and tugs on which Taylor's family worked.38 Caroline Hammond states that she had followed cooking all her life as did her husband, and they were both employed at the Howard House.39 In Page Harris's narrative, he says that after his father had left Maryland, he came back and secured for himself a position as a waiter at the Naval Academy. Page himself also, worked at the Naval Academy as a waiter too.40
Parson Williams, though not a slave because his grandmother was an Indian, held numerous jobs as a teamster, hauling munitions and supplies for General Grant's army during the war. He also worked as a porter, janitor and held numerous jobs as a laborer.41 He was considered a good judge of healthy slaves, and often accompanied slave purchasers to slave markets.42 The plantation owners in Prince Georges, St. Mary's, Baltimore and other surrounding counties gave, Williams special permission to conduct religious services in the slaves' cabins.43
But whether a slave worked primarily in the house, field or both, work usually was from sunrise to sunset. A slave worked every day except Saturdays or Sundays. However, many of those interviewed commented that they had regular holidays just as their owners did.
Charles Coles says that slaves were given time to themselves on the holidays.44 James V.Deane says that Christmas was a special occasion, and that slaves would go to the Big House, get presents and celebrate all day.45 Richard Macks does recall Christmas being a holiday the slaves shared in, although his Mistress never gave presents.46 Dennis Simms though, says that Christmas made little difference at the Contee plantation, though slaves were given extra rations of food.47
Although some slaves did not get legal holidays, when work was done their time was their own. On one plantation, when the work was done and the slaves wanted to meet at night they would blow an old conk. All the slaves would meet on the bank of the Potomac River where they would sing across to the slaves in Virginia who, would then sing back.48 Richard Macks recalls that the slaves would go from one cabin to the other talking, singing, dancing or playing the fiddle.49 In a contrary example, as told by Dennis Simms, when the workday was over slaves in his community were not allowed to congregate in their cabins. However, they did so anyway, getting together to sing songs and spirituals. Some of the Spirituals sung were, "Bringin' in the Sheaves", "The stars are shinin' for us all" and "Hear the Angels callin."50 James V. Deane remarks, that corn shucking itself became a special gathering. Slaves from other plantations would come to the barn where, a fiddler sat atop of the highest barrel of corn and played music. A barrel of cider and a hug of whiskey were provided, and there was a supper break at twelve in the afternoon. Roast pig, applesauce, hominy, and corn bread were served. Afterwards, the shucking would commence again. When the shucking was finally complete a dance followed, which went well into the early morning.51
Other activities that provided slaves with leisure time centered around religious rituals. The Dorsey's, who owned Charles Coles, would conduct regular Catholic Church services in a chapel, erected on the farm for that sole purpose. Slaves were taught catechism and learned to read and write, often assisted by the priests.52 Baptisms and Christenings were special occasions as well. On the Dorsey plantation, when a child was born, it was baptized and its name was recorded in the Bible.53 The slaves were taught the rituals of the church. When slaves died, funerals were conducted by priests.54 When slaves were buried, they had plain stones to mark their graves as opposed to the Dorseys' whose were marble. The graves were surrounded by cedar trees and well cared for.55
James V. Deane witnessed many slave weddings. Often, the Master acted as a Reverend and held the broom for the groom and bride would jump over to complete the marriage ceremony.56 Deane also attended the White Methodist Church, which had a slave gallery. The slaves would participate in singing with the white church members.57 However, Deane also saw see many colored funerals that had no service. There would only be a grave built and a wooden post to show where they were buried.58
Richard Macks attended church regularly, though he claims not to have been a member.59 Slaves went to the white church, sat in the rear, or if there were no room, many would either sit on the floor or stand.60 There was often a colored preacher present, but slaves were either baptized or christened by white preachers. A graveyard was present on the property and the slaves would have headstones and cedar posts to show where they were buried.61 Parson Williams recalls that when a death occurred, rough box would be made of heavy slabs, and the dead slave would be buried on the same day they had died.62 The ceremony was brief, if there was any, the grieving slaves would sing a few spirituals and then return to their cabins.63 Some of the spirituals that would be sung were "Roll de stones away", "You'll rise in the skies", and "Ezekiel, he's comin' home."64
There are some examples of interactions between free blacks and enslaved blacks. The narratives that deal with such interaction are those that speak of free and enslaved blacks that were related to one another. 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. Ensor's wife was a very refined woman who taught Eliza to read and write.65 Her duties along with assisting Doctor Ensor were to help him in making some of his medicine. Eliza eventually perfected many of the remedies for herself. She would use these remedies to help herself and other free and enslaved blacks.66
Eliza became well known for her ability to heal others and, made a name for herself from Pennsylvania to Baltimore City.67 She delivered babies and acted as midwife for many of the poor whites and, slaves and free blacks in the area.68 Eliza Foote was confided in by the colored people and suspected by the whites. When a slave from a neighboring area ran away, Eliza was accused of voodooism, jailed and threatened with being sold into slavery if she did not leave Baltimore County at once.69 She did leave, and made her way to Pennsylvania. Whether her children and husband accompanied her is not clear, but it seems that they did not.
Relations between slaves and their families were shaped by the circumstances of their being enslaved. This collection of interviews offers such views and, serves to enlighten all individuals about the plight of the black slave and free black people in the state of Maryland. They also offer a chance to lean about the complex society in which slaves lived, and to catch glimpses of the actions, trials, and hopes of slave families.