Tracking free black in city's slave trade

PBS `Detectives' find clues at the Pratt

May 03, 2003|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

History Detectives are at work in the Poe Room of the Enoch Pratt Central Library.

Edgar Allan Poe, the inventor of the detective story, seems bemused looking down from a portrait over the mantel at the TV crew scuttling around the room below.

History Detectives is a new PBS show that has sent out teams of architects, antiquarians and historians to uncover "the history hidden on America's doorstep." It's a 10-episode series set to begin on July 14, with three historical mysteries to be "solved" per episode.

The detectives have come to the Poe Room to interrogate Ralph Clayton, librarian, scholar and chronicler of slaves shipped from Baltimore to New Orleans in his book, Cash for Blood. Along with a narrative that documents the horrors of the domestic slave trade with its infamous Baltimore pens and prisons, Clayton lists 12,000 slaves who were sold south.

It's this chronicle that brought the history detectives to Baltimore a few days ago, looking for a name that's on Clayton's list. The case opened when the owners of a handsome house in Natchez, Miss., started wondering about the man who built it and first owned it. He was a free black man named Robert D. Smith, who lived and thrived in the Deep South during the years of slavery before the Civil War.

"It's a fascinating story," says Tukufu Zuberi, a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He's the host for this segment of History Detectives. "You know life is so fascinating if you take a minute to just watch a small piece of it. All of a sudden it just blows out and the world is in front of you."

He'll interview Clayton and they'll look at the evidence amassed on reels of microfilm from the National Archives.

"He found Robert Smith," Zuberi says. "This guy's an expert on these records so that's what we're going to talk to him about, his finding of Robert Smith and what all this means."

Fred Grinstein, an associate producer for History Detectives, turned up the story of the Natchez house while doing research. He had called up historical societies and preservation groups throughout the South looking for historical mysteries.

"Originally they thought it was built by a Spanish don because it's so majestic," Grinstein says of the house. The Spanish had dominion over Natchez from 1779 to 1798, when the United States took over. "It turns out it was done by a free person of color in 1851."

Grinstein found Smith's name in Clayton's book.

"These are just like [names] of slaves and slaves and slaves, endless lists of slaves," he says. "Here within this huge catalog of slaves we have this tiny little group of people, Robert D. Smith and his mother and his two sisters, [who] were traveling as `free people of color.'"

Clayton was amazed when Grinstein first called him to ask about Smith. "He was skeptical," Grinstein says.

"This is so rare. I'm shocked," Clayton says, although the evidence is in his book. "I'll bet you if you went back and looked through all the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of documents, you would not see this two or three other times. That's how confident I am that this is such an anomaly."

He owns the entire collection of microfilmed ship's manifests from the National Archives: "24 reels of all the manifests from cities of the upper South to New Orleans, even cities in the South, from 1818 to 1860," he says. They document 20,000 to 25,000 slaves shipped south. Some records from Baltimore are missing after 1855. "I don't know why [they are] because Baltimore was a major shipper right up to 1861."

"Baltimore did have that ugly role in the domestic slave trade," Zuberi says.

For the History Detectives, Clayton printed out the manifest with the names of Smith and his mother, Lucy Boyer, and his sisters, Emily, 9, and Caroline, 13. Their name was Boyer, too. Smith was 17 when they traveled to New Orleans in November 1823, on a packet called the Virginia.

"You can see the stuff that's been scratched out," Grinstein says. "You can see what it used to say: `for the purpose of being sold or disposed of further as slaves.' Here instead of `persons of color,' they're `free persons of color.'

Clayton observes Lucy Boyer signed with an "X."

"She can't write," he says. "You can learn a great deal from studying these documents, more than meets the eye initially."

In New Orleans, the detectives traced Robert D. Smith from when he first bought land in New Orleans in 1831 until he left in 1837 for Natchez.

"He was really quickly becoming a successful businessman," Grinstein says. "The earliest thing we found of him is that eight years after he arrived [in New Orleans] he was in the city directory as a grocer. By the time he arrived in Natchez he ran a carriage business."

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