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
Slavery, Resistance, and Flight
by John Gartrell
In traditional narratives of the underground railroad, slaves are rarely given full credit for their own initiative. These narratives often depicts blacks as having no agency, but instead were forced into a lifetime of servitude, conditioned to be obedient, docile, and loyal to their white masters. However, there is evidence that inverts and contradicts the image of the powerless slave in Maryland. Resistance to slavery, and flight from bondage are two examples of the power slaves had to shape their own destinies.
One of the most difficult aspects of slavery for the enslaved was the arbitrary and tenuous relationship they shared with their masters. Depending on the mood of the master or overseer, any slave could be praised in one breath and punished in another. For many, religion acted as a coping mechanism which allowed them to survive on a day-to-day, basis. Religion also surfaced as the common form of daily resistance among slaves.
A daily prayer to their deity for deliverance from their situation was the most popular type of prayer. Other slaves looked to the heavens to strike down their masters by causing material loss, or bodily harm.1 Slaves often snuck off the plantation without permission on the Sabbath and attended "Sunday Meetings." These meetings were usually held a few miles away from the watchful eye of whites in the community. In many cases, slaves from neighboring plantations and farms came to worship together. The hope of divine intervention in their lifetime, and a promised paradise in the afterlife helped give slaves the strength to make it through their daily routines.
Still, slaves in Maryland did not leave their situations solely in the hands of God. Forced to live in dilapidated conditions, slaves who had next to nothing did not give up so easily. Many stole harvested crops, or slaughtered livestock and chattel when they were not supplied with ample food.2 Some stole their master's fine goods. This was an easier task for house servants who knew where the valuable possessions were kept. They in-turn sold these goods build up money to purchase their own freedom.3 In both instances the activity was limited because if too much was stolen, their actions would be noticed and they would be punished. Nonetheless, theft was one way for slaves to both survive, and to strike back at their masters.
Resistance also came in more drastic and violent forms. It was reported that slave cooks defecated in or poisoned their master's food, while other slaves outwitted their masters through trickery.4 If slaves knew that someone was looking to punish them, they often ran into a wooded area close to the plantation to allow "cooler heads to prevail." It should be noted though, that this form of resistance usually resulted in a harsher punishment when the slave returned.5
The most dangerous form of resistance was violent resistance. This type of resistance usually only occurred under the most extreme conditions. Even the most loyal slave had a breaking point and when that point was reached, the line of servant and master became blurred in the eyes of slaves. Some slaves, if they felt their punishments were excessive, vowed never to be beaten again. In such cases, slaves struck back at any person that dared to lay a hand upon them. Still others struck back as a reaction to dangerous situations. Many slaves attempted to protect other family members from violence, even if it meant a physical confrontation with whites.6 Less frequently, rogue slaves with reputations as fighters or weapon bearers even intimidated white overseers.
Flight for slaves was the epitome of resistance and it came as a first option, a last resort, or somewhere in between. There were a multitude of reasons why slaves decided to runaway. The same "breaking point" that drove slave to violence may have also driven them to leave slavery behind. Perhaps the most reason for flight was the fear of being sold farther south to Georgia, New Orleans or the Carolinas. Slaves in Maryland were well aware of the difficulties of the rice and sugarcane crops grown in the Deep South. Masters often threatened to sell a slave further south if the slave was too bold for the master's liking. Some slave families chose to runaway together and face the consequences of being recaptured than see one of their own sold further south.7 No matter what the reason for escaping may have been, the next step was how they went about escaping.
The location of Pennsylvania, a free state, on Maryland's northern border provided an unique opportunity for fleeing slaves. Some slaves did not even know that there were free states in the country, and instead looked to Canada for freedom. Others knew of the free North but they did not know how far away it was, or how long their journey would take them. Some slaves had knowledge that helped them escape. Some knew of the North Star and how to follow it, or the location of roads like the Maryland-Pennsylvania Turnpike that led to York, Pennsylvania.8 Other slaves were accustomed to traveling on roads to markets, or as coachmen for their master.
The final choice to take flight was not one that was so easily made. Slaves had a number of factors to take into account when planning their escape. The most trying factor was the reality of leaving one's family behind. Many slaves in Maryland had ties with their families either on the same plantation or one nearby.9 Knowing that Pennsylvania was so close to the Maryland state line, and yet that line was the difference between a free life and an enslaved one often delayed or halted their plans for escape. Ironically, slaves who saw their families broken apart on the trading block, had an easier choice to make because they did not leave any family behind. Another factor was whether to tell others of their plans. Although many families ran away together, more often than not slaves in Maryland made the journey alone. The threat of another slave revealing the plans of a potential runaway was a serious threat. The consequences of being caught and returned to Maryland weighed heavily on the minds of these slaves. With the advent of fugitive slave laws in the 1840's, slaves could be returned and face an uncertain future when the wrath of their masters were reigned upon them. Despite these factors, the lure of liberty was too loud for some slaves to ignore, and they made their way down the unfamiliar roads to their freedom.
The road to freedom presented an experience in which runaways needed to have a combination of planning, instinct, and luck. Some slaves followed others when they set out on their journey. Others stole horses from their masters, often the same horses they often cared for as slaves. They used the horses to carry them for a portion of the trip, then released them after getting a distance away.10 Whether the journey was made on horse or foot however, they usually traveled at night, alongside main roads but not so close as to be spotted.
Food was a major concern for runaways because it directly affected the distance they would be able to travel in the course of a night. The more food they could obtain, the more energy they could exert in their flight. The call of hunger left many runaways to make a dangerous and desperate attempt to gain food from the houses they passed along the way. Some decided to steal the food from reserves they found outside houses. The very brave walked up and petitioned the owner to throw them a few morsels, claiming they were simply free blacks making their return to some far away town in the north.11 Slaves who traveled alone hoarded food for themselves, and saved found for the rest of their journey. But the slaves who traveled in groups, especially those in families, had to share their food among their company. Parents made sure to feed their children first, which often left themselves without food for days at a time.12
People run away slaves met along the road played a critical role in the success and failure of runaway attempts. Rarely did a slave make the journey without at least one encounter with another person, be they black or white. It was risky for fleeing slaves to identify themselves as runaways. Many white bounty hunters captured runaways by gaining their trust and then turning them in for a reward. Some blacks did the same, although most assumed a "don't ask, don't tell" approach when they met runaways in the midst of their sojourn. While risky, these encounters occasionally rendered positive results for the runaways. If fortune smiled upon the runaways, they met blacks and whites people who pointed them in the direction of freedom. Others went further to assist them in obtaining their freedom. Helpful people on the road delivered runaways to Friends, abolitionists, free blacks, and whites willing to put themselves in danger.13 They took slaves across the border, harbored the slaves and gave them directions, or passed the slaves along to those who could further help them on the trail north.14
The uncertain element of life on the run was one that altered even the best-laid plans of runaways. The availability of food and rest determined how fast and long the flight of a slave would take. The longer their journey took, the greater the threat of recapture. A simple encounter with another person, whether they were black or white, left their fate out of their hands. For those that made it across the Mason-Dixon Line which separated slave states from free states, their final destination as freemen was just as uncertain as the slave life they had left behind.
The final leg of the journey from slavery to freedom left slaves from Maryland dispersed across the reaches of the North. Runaways commonly fled to a place where they knew of family or friends. The first wave of escapees typically settled in places such as Philadelphia, New Jersey, and parts of western Pennsylvania. Making lives as farmers or skilled and unskilled laborers, they offered a familiar setting and sense of stability for the runaways that followed. However, after the fugitive slave laws passed in the 1840's, many slaves continued their journeys further away from Maryland. The fugitive slave laws made it possible for them to be returned South if captured in a free state. New destinations included New York, Hartford, Boston/Springfield, and towards the west the Ohio territories, and Indiana areas. But in order to feel completely secure, many runaways ultimately journeyed to Canada to make new lives for themselves.
These examples of resistance and flight among slaves in Maryland show that slaves possessed considerable agency despite their circumstances. Resistance and flight show how slaves asserted their claims to their own lives. If resistance was vital in maintaining the humanity and free will that masters so often tried to strip from their slaves, flight was the affirmation of that humanity through their will to be free.