Librarian helps clients find branches on family trees

August 22, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

People in search of long-lost great-grandparents often wind up in a room at the southwest corner of the downtown Pratt Library.

They seek clues to their family trees in the library's vast collection of microfilmed records, wherein tiny handwritten entries offer hope of sketching a biography of missing ancestors.

The Pratt, through its collection of federal census tracts, city directories and newspapers, usually has basic information on most every resident of Baltimore. But one segment of society nearly escaped written documentation. Before the Civil War era, slaves were not included in federal tracts.

"Slaves were not counted in the federal census. Slaves were property, not people. It was a cruel system," says Ralph Clayton, the Pratt staff member who has spent nearly 20 years helping patrons search out these vanished ancestors.

After years of being frustrated and confused by these records, Mr. Clayton began gathering every bit of information he could find about Afro-Americans in 19th century Baltimore. His work has resulted in a book, "Slavery, Slaveholding and the Free Black Population of Antebellum Baltimore." It is published by Heritage Books in Bowie.

"The heart of the study is clearly the identification of the slave holders and owners. It is the key that unlocks the door to slaves and their families," Mr. Clayton says.

Then, Baltimore was divided into 20 wards -- or election districts. The neighborhood known today as Mount Vernon held the greatest number of slaves. It was bounded by Saratoga Street on the south, Howard Street on the west, Biddle Street on the north and the Jones Falls on the east.

By compiling the slave-holders in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood, Mr. Clayton has been able to construct a social X-ray of the city, a look behind the front doors of the rich and influential.

His book documents, house by house, the slave-owners in the Mount Vernon area.

In the 1850s, Mount Vernon was home for many of the city's wealthiest, most influential citizens, and also, Mr. Clayton found in his searching of documents, had the city's highest concentration of slaves.

The author has identified prominent white Baltimore families -- Carroll, Cator, Dallam, Deford, Gittings, Hopkins, Howard, Jenkins, Levering, Purviance and Williams -- as each owning and quartering slaves in this neighborhood.

Among his other findings:

* Charles Carroll, whose brownstone home was made into luxury condominiums in the mid-1980s, had eight slaves on Mount Vernon Place: James, 40; Harriett, 30; Austin, 18; William, 15; Margaret, 25; Frisby, 35; Matilda, 25; and Ann, 14.

* Slaves were owned by marble-cutter Hugh Sisson; Emily McTavish, the granddaughter of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, who was herself a generous philanthropist, and by baggage-express mogul Samuel Shoemaker, who lived at St. Paul and Read streets.

* Among the clergy of the day, the Roman Catholic Jesuit Fathers owned one female slave; Baptist minister Richard Fuller held four female slaves and two male slaves; and Episcopal Bishop William Whittingham owned a slave.

* William H. DeCoursey Wright, a coffee importer who was United States consul in Rio de Janeiro, lived in the 1840s on Charles Street, a block away from the Pratt Library.

Mr. Wright's city home (he had another near Queenstown on the Eastern Shore) was 409 N. Charles St., which in recent years had been the Eubie Blake Cultural Center until it was damaged by fire last summer. Mr. Wright freed one of his slaves in 1837. Mr. Clayton traced the family after its manumission.

"Wright freed Frederick Pipes because of his good service. I traced Pipes' children all the way through 1910. By that time, they have moved several times and were then living at 1910 Etting Street (near West North Avenue) Baltimore," Mr. Clayton says.

On his days off, Mr. Clayton often walks through the alleys of the Mount Vernon neighborhood and observes the back rooms and chambers where he is convinced the slaves lived while serving masters.

"It is funny. Even here at the Pratt Library, I can look out the windows and see the parts of old houses where slaves lived," he says.

Tomorrow: A look at slavery in 19th century Baltimore.

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