Slavery in Md.: still looking for a good book

October 07, 1998|By James H. Bready

IS IT time yet for a history of slavery in Maryland? Perhaps not; for almost eight generations, slavery was lawful in Maryland; it has been against the law for less than five generations. Someone setting out to write the first general-reader account of what life was like for African Americans during slavery could find it hard to keep his or her own emotions out of it.

Meanwhile, objective retrospect of this state's activity on other fronts has proceeded -- books having to do with agriculture, banking, the courts and so on. These enterprises still go on, but no living Marylander had a role in slavery. Ignore it long enough and perhaps slavery, like the early white settlers' expulsion of the Indians, will fade into oblivion.

Many people nowadays are unconcerned with time gone by; others avoid unpleasantness. Sometimes the victims of slavery are passed off as the simple-minded wards of benevolent protectors in the pre-Civil War land of cotton and magnolias -- far away. The decennial censuses say otherwise. In 1790, Maryland's slaves numbered 103,376 (in a population of 319,728); by 1860, the total had dropped to 87,189 in a population of 687,049.) As the historian Robert J. Brugger points out in "Maryland: A Middle Temperament," by the 1850s, elements in the counties were busily out to reinforce the role of slavery.

Throughout, slavery happened here: not only on tobacco plantations but also on grain farms, along the Chesapeake Bay, and in the homes and businesses of Baltimore.

Well-known names

Aspects of slavery do get worked over. Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Josiah Henson of Montgomery County (the supposed model for Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel) make fine schoolbook heroes.

The Underground Railroad offers not only excitement but also happy endings. But years and years of silence envelop such names as John Denning, Austin Woolfolk, Hope H. Slatter and Joseph S. Donaldson, proprietors of some of the slave pens on South Frederick and West Pratt streets. For every terrified slave finally reaching the Pennsylvania line, how many were intercepted and returned to punitive masters by manhunt agencies such as the one with offices in the basement of Baltimore's top hotel, Barnum's?

Anyone undertaking now to describe slavery in Maryland will find much of the digging already done. Slavery's national dimensions have been delineated and reproduced in books by John Hope Franklin, Barbara Jeanne Fields, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Eugene D. Genovese, Nathan I. Huggins and others.

Their researches have extended from the earliest shipping manifests to the recollections of living former slaves as written down in Works Progress Administration project in the 1930's. Particularly helpful is the 1993 book, "Slavery, Slaveholding and the Free Black Population of Antebellum Baltimore," by Ralph Clayton of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Mr. Clayton prints the name of every Baltimorean, white or black, who owned one or more slaves.

To these comprehensive works, add the new, warmly received book, "Many Thousands Gone," by Ira Berlin of the University of Maryland, College Park. For this trenchant overview, which covers slavery's first 200 years from New England on down, Professor Berlin combed journal articles of scores of academic specialists.

Whoever narrows the focus to Maryland -- with a historian's interest in both the particular and the general, a historian's alertness to mobility in moral standards -- must also have in mind that conditions could vary over place and time. This slave quarter might seem like an African village; that one, a penal colony.

Some individuals were martyrs; others, anything but. Large landholders relied on many slaves -- for example, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, at Doughoregan Manor in Howard County (as with Thomas Jefferson, he didn't have his slaves freed upon his death. Jefferson could plead debts, but not so Carroll).

The 1860 census showed more free African-American residents in Baltimore than in any other U.S. city, a statistic often cited favorably. Historians now grimace. Slaves were rented out, in the city, in the manner of today's agencies that provide temporary office help. When a slave became old, or otherwise unfit for hire, many an owner shirked his property's shelter and feeding. Cheaper to set them free -- just when Irish and German immigrants were muscling into the labor market.

Family history

In any age, many people refuse to be associated with horse-thief ancestors (war heroes, another matter). What of those who bought, sold, lashed, impregnated, mocked and ignored fellow human beings? People with names like Szczechowiak, Goldblatt and Glorioso may occasionally regret not having First Family of Maryland names. On the other hand, they don't have to worry about turning up in the index of a history of slavery in Maryland.

James H. Bready previously worked as a reporter, editorial writer and book editor for The Evening Sun.

Pub Date: 10/07/98

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