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African-American History

Tracing the Travels of Maryland’s African Americans

 

American Colonization Society's Warehouse, Monrovia. Unidentified photographer. Not dated. 9 x 12 inch photograph print American Colonization Society / Liberia Collection. PP161-I-24 , MdHS.

American Colonization Society’s Warehouse, Monrovia. Unidentified photographer. Not dated. 9 x 12 inch photograph print
American Colonization Society / Liberia Collection. PP161-I-24 , MdHS.

In high school, I volunteered at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, rooting myself in the contributions black people have made in the past and present to the development of the state of Maryland. Given the scope of the Reginald’s exhibits and my own childhood in Maryland, my understanding of blackness was both informed by and limited by the state’s boundaries and Baltimore’s racial politics. Going to school in Baltimore, I always felt like navigating my black experience in the present mattered more than tracing my heritage to a place beyond the United States. For better or for worse, race, not ethnicity or nationality, seemed to dominate conversations and social issues in Baltimore.

However, my perspective expanded when my high school in Baltimore granted me a scholarship to spend a month as an exchange student in England. During a family weekend, a black British friend of mine introduced me to his mother who was visiting our boarding school. When I explained to her that I was from the United States, she followed up by asking “No, in Africa… which African country?” In other words, where did my roots lie—not just in America, but even farther back in time? I began to appreciate that many of the black students I knew might have physically grown up in England, yet they strongly identified with their parents’ origins in specific African nations, not just with being black.

Since my interactions in England, I have become increasingly intrigued not only by my own ancestry, but also the extent to which both Africa and the African diaspora have been shaped and reshaped through migration, travel, and cross-cultural encounters. I now appreciate the value in tracing my own family’s origins and critically thinking about how my black experience might mirror or diverge from others. Indeed, if we fail to dig deeper into our racial identities, we may miss the nuances of our particular perspectives. We are not simply our race: our nationalities, genders, and countries of origin, among other factors, intersect with our racial identities and influence who we are.

Since my time in England, my other opportunities to cross boundaries and traverse borders, both local and international, have been equally formative, broadening my approach to race and ethnicity beyond what I knew growing up in Maryland. I have always come back home with a greater appreciation for how blackness, and race generally, is imagined differently depending on where you go. I remember in those moments that there is no one way to be black. Perhaps, through that complexity, we can appreciate the humanity and multiplicity of black experiences.

As I thought about what to explore in this blog post, given my opportunities to travel abroad, I felt particularly inclined to uncover the ways African Americans in Maryland have connected to a greater national or global story. What did travel to new places mean for black people in Maryland who came before me? To answer this question, I turned to primary sources on Maryland African American history in the Special Collections of the H. Furlong Baldwin Library at the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS).

 Mathias De Sousa and the Settlement of Colonial Maryland

Image of De Sousa from Historic St. Mary’s City website, Historic Saint Mary’s City.

Image of De Sousa from Historic St. Mary’s City website, Historic Saint Mary’s City.

Before slavery began in Maryland, people of African descent had arrived on Maryland’s shores, yet under much different circumstances. Rather than coming to Maryland as slaves, some blacks came to the colony only temporarily in servitude.

Earlier this spring, I learned about the story of Mathias de Sousa during a presentation at MdHS by Dr. Jean B. Russo, one of the editors of the newly released second edition of the seminal Maryland: A History. (1)

In 1634, the Ark and the Dove set sail from England and docked on the banks of the St. Mary’s River. Probably of mixed ancestry with roots in both Portugal and Africa, de Sousa was on the Ark and one of the nine indentured servants brought to Maryland by Jesuit missionaries in Lord Baltimore’s expedition. (2) Scholars have identified Andrew White, a Jesuit priest who came on the Ark, as the person responsible for bringing de Sousa to Maryland. (3)

Early settler communities in England’s North American colonies were much more democratic than later colonial times might suggest. Once de Sousa finished his indenture in 1638, he secured his right to vote in Maryland. At the time, all free men of any color or religion in Maryland, including those of African descent like de Sousa, could participate in colonial assemblies. (4)

Nonetheless, as Maryland became more established as a colony, so too did racial categorization follow suit. De Sousa stood as an exception to a new norm forming around blackness in Maryland. His freedom and enfranchisement coexisted with the enslavement of other people of African descent in colonial Maryland, starting with the first Africans brought to St. Mary’s City in 1642 who were enslaved for life. By the 1660s and 1670s, African ancestry and slavery were deeply intertwined in Maryland. Colonial legislation made lifelong bondage mandatory for black slaves and the Maryland Constitution would not abolish slavery until 1864.

Josiah Henson and Frederick Douglass

Douglass, Frederick, “A Friendly Word to Maryland. A lecture delivered by Frederick Douglass, Esq. in Bethel Church on the 17th of November, 1864” (Baltimore: John W. Woods, 1864). Rare PAM 862, MdHS. (REFERENCE PHOTO).

Douglass, Frederick, “A Friendly Word to Maryland. A lecture delivered by Frederick Douglass, Esq. in Bethel Church on the 17th of November, 1864” (Baltimore: John W. Woods, 1864). Rare PAM 862, MdHS. (REFERENCE PHOTO).

In the antebellum era, some enslaved African Americans traversed borders to escape oppression and live freely. Before the Civil War, this meant fleeing slave masters, going north to Canada or south to Mexico, and rebuilding one’s life in a new land. Beyond Douglass, most remarkable among these runaway narratives is the journey of Josiah Henson, an enslaved man from Southern Maryland whose narrative inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

In 1830, Henson and his family escaped to Canada, yet he repeatedly returned to the United States to guide other slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad. (5) As Henson shared in his autobiography, he “made more than one trip, about this time, to Maryland and Kentucky, with the expectation, in which I was not disappointed, that some might be enabled to follow in my footsteps.” (6)

Despite the inherent danger and prospect of re-enslavement, Henson embodied the sensibility that freedom should compel one to fight for the liberation and uplift of others. Certainly, it is important to appreciate the local history of African Americans in Maryland in its own right. However, stories that transcend state and national borders like Henson’s story often get overlooked in the process.

Additionally, one may recall Frederick Douglass as one of the leading intellectuals and abolitionists of the nineteenth-century United States, but forget about the international dimensions of his life. Douglass was born on a plantation in Maryland’s rural Talbot County. His transition to urban slavery in Baltimore (and the resulting engagement with the city’s large free black community) contributed to his own quest for freedom in the north, where he shared his unlikely path from slavery to freedom to all who would listen. However, until my college years, I did not fully appreciate that Douglass took his anti-slavery campaign to England and Ireland.

As evident in Black Perspectives, the blog of the African-American Intellectual History Society, historians such as Brandon Byrd and Ronald Angelo Johnson have recently rediscovered and emphasized Douglass’s role as U.S. minister resident and consul general to Haiti in the 1890s. (7) Intriguingly, Douglass represented the United States, a country that had originally enslaved him, in a Caribbean nation born out of a revolution organized and won by formerly enslaved people. As Johnson asserts in his analysis of Douglass in Haiti, “these pioneers of Black diplomacy were forced to counterbalance historic achievement in race relations with the unenviable responsibility of representing the racist interests of American leadership.” (8) Such international endeavors must have been quite influential for Douglass, comparable to the insights he gained when leaving Maryland’s Eastern Shore for the urban life of cities like Baltimore, New York, and eventually Washington, D.C.

In spite of all his travels within and beyond the United States, I should concede that Douglass found meaning not just in traveling far from home but coming back to it. On November 17, 1864, he returned to Maryland, comforted by the fact that his home state had officially abolished slavery a couple of weeks earlier on November 1. In a lecture preserved in MdHS’s Special Collections, titled “A Friendly Word to Maryland,” Douglass relished his opportunity to return to Baltimore, “the city of my boyhood.” (9)

For Douglass, the Maryland he once knew had changed profoundly with the Civil War: “Had any man told me four years ago, that I should be here tonight, speaking to a Baltimore audience, I should have thought him about as insane as if he had predicted that I should some day go on a mission to the inhabitants of the moon!” He goes on to say that his “life has been distinguished by two important events, dated about twenty-six years apart. One was my running away from Maryland, and the other is my returning to Maryland tonight.” (10) You can learn more about the history of Douglass in Maryland right here in an underbelly post from last year.

Maryland in Liberia

By the 1830s, some enslaved and free blacks had another alternative to better their condition: participation in a colonization initiative. During the mid-nineteenth century, African-Americans engaged in resettlement schemes in Africa and the Caribbean, including Haiti, Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic), and part of the West African coast (now Liberia). In Samaná Bay in the Dominican Republic, black settlers from the United States formed a tight-knit community that retains remnants of African-American culture to this day, including American surnames. Douglass spoke to a group of these “Samana-Americans” when visiting the Dominican Republic (then known as Santo Domingo) in 1871 as part of the United States commision charged with assessing the Dominican side of the island for potential annexation. (11)

Despite the political pressure of President Grant, the annexation of Santo Domingo ultimately failed to acquire congressional approval (not to mention the consent of many Dominicans, concerned for their nation’s autonomy). Nonetheless, even if the annexation did not ultimately come to fruition, Douglass’s trip to the island was probably quite transformative personally: one can imagine the kinship he might have felt for the African Americans he encountered in Santo Domingo with similar roots and memories of enslavement who sought freedom in a new land.

MdHS Special Collections has several documents on the colonization movement as it relates to African American emigration from Maryland to Liberia in particular. Founded in 1831, the Maryland Colonization Society (a branch of the larger American Colonization Society) financed the settlers’ overseas voyages with public funds appropriated by the Maryland state legislature. With the support of the Society, African American emigrants founded a colony, “Maryland in Liberia,” in 1834, which would later be incorporated into the Republic of Liberia in 1857.

Before the Civil War, Maryland had the largest population of free African Americans among the slave-holding states. The existence of a notable free black population in Maryland threatened the interests of the state’s slaveholders. In the context of these racial tensions, both black and white Marylanders were divided on the issue of colonization for various reasons.

Many abolitionists, both white and black, thought that a better future awaited blacks abroad, not in the United States. Meanwhile, some colonization advocates cared less about blacks’ empowerment and self-determination, and more about ridding America of its racial problems by quite literally sending blacks out of the country. And finally, there were many people of all races who believed that efforts should concentrate not on African Americans’ emigration, but on making the United States a more equitable and racially tolerant nation for all its citizens.

“Sketches of Liberia: Comprising a Brief Account of the Geography, Climate, Productions, and Diseases of the Republic of Liberia,” 3rd ed. (J.W. Lugenbeel. Washington: C. Alexander, 1853). Rare DT 625 .L95 1853, MdHS. (REFERENCE PHOTO).

“Sketches of Liberia: Comprising a Brief Account of the Geography, Climate, Productions, and Diseases of the Republic of Liberia,” 3rd ed. (J.W. Lugenbeel. Washington: C. Alexander, 1853). Rare DT 625 .L95 1853, MdHS. (REFERENCE PHOTO).

Constitution and Laws of Maryland in Liberia, with an Appendix of Precedents, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: John D. Toy, 1847). Rare DT 627 .M34 1847, MdHS. (REFERENCE PHOTO)

Constitution and Laws of Maryland in Liberia, with an Appendix of Precedents, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: John D. Toy, 1847). Rare DT 627 .M34 1847, MdHS. (REFERENCE PHOTO)

 

 

No matter the motivations, a mixture of “free coloured people and emancipated slaves” boarded ships bound for the West African coast and settled in what is now modern-day Liberia. (12) The constitution of Maryland in Liberia reflected the Society’s nuanced relationship to slavery in the United States: “it is not less the desire of the society that the evil of slavery should be removed from Maryland, than that the emigrants to Africa should find their happiness and prosperity promoted by their change of home.” (13)However, West African realities often strayed from expectations of the welcoming motherland promised to African American emigrants. One historical sketch in the MdHS archives by J. W. Lugenbeel provides commentary on the encounters between African American emigrants and the native African community. From 1843 to 1850, Lugenbeel served as a colonial physician and United States agent in Liberia before returning to the United States. He would then work in the American Colonization Society’s office in Washington, D.C. until his passing in 1857.Lugenbeel noted that West Africans still practiced slavery in the nineteenth century, probably shocking African Americans hoping to never have to encounter the institution again. By the time of Lugenbeel’s travels, however, the Liberian government required native Africans to abandon slave trading as well as “the practice of such superstitious rites or ceremonies as tend to deprive any of their fellow beings of life.” (14) Lugenbeel also wrote that in 1822, a little more than a decade before the official founding of Maryland in Liberia, African American settlers “remained in a state of anxiety, watchfulness, suffering, and uncertainty, until early in the morning of the 11th November, when a large body of armed natives made their appearance and commenced the deadly assault… they did not abandon their design of endeavoring to exterminate the colonists.”

Eventually, “the last battle fully satisfied the surrounding natives of the superiority of their new neighbors, notwithstanding their extremely small number.” (15) Far from embracing the settlers as long-lost kin returning home, the indigenous African population often understandably perceived newly-arriving African Americans as imperialistic invaders on their land.

C.T.O. King was a mayor of Monrovia in the late nineteenth century. The Liberian capital city of Monrovia was named to honor James Monroe who served as U.S. President from 1817 to 1825. Monroe was a member of the American Colonization Society and supported the colonization of Liberia by freed slaves from the U.S.  C.T.O. King. Unidentified photographer. Not dated. American Colonization Society / Liberia Collection. PP161-I-8, MdHS.

C.T.O. King was a mayor of Monrovia in the late nineteenth century. The Liberian capital city of Monrovia was named to honor James Monroe who served as U.S. President from 1817 to 1825. Monroe was a member of the American Colonization Society and supported the colonization of Liberia by freed slaves from the U.S. C.T.O. King. Unidentified photographer. Not dated.
American Colonization Society / Liberia Collection. PP161-I-8, MdHS.

I have wondered whether those nineteenth-century African Americans who emigrated to Africa felt American or African (or perhaps something in between or different) as they built new lives for themselves in an unfamiliar place. Without a doubt, whether these settlers stayed or returned, the colonization project in Liberia dramatically shaped both West African and African American history. African Americans in Maryland, like all Marylanders, clearly have a history extending beyond the state’s borders.

Reading Lugenbeel’s writing, I began to appreciate the limitations of the primary sources in MdHS Special Collections. From one document, you often absorb just one side of the story. Lugenbeel’s observations alone only offer his account of events. For future scholarship, one might explore documents written by West Africans and African American emigrants about their own experiences.

My research experience here at the MdHS has also encouraged me to think about the state’s heritage in new ways. I deepened my desire to bring local history in conversation with the wider world. The stories we tell about black people in our state must also transcend simplified depictions of slavery and plantation life. When we look back in time, we will find that many enslaved and free blacks in Maryland lived much more nuanced and transnational lives.

The African American history of Maryland began with the seventeenth-century experience of Mathias de Sousa, sailing from England in 1634 to make America his new home, not long before the first slaves who would arrive in Maryland from Africa in 1642. Centuries later, Douglass would also traverse the Atlantic in the other direction, garnering support for the abolitionist cause in Britain and Ireland. Fastforwarding to 2019, with African Americans making up an estimated 30 percent of Maryland’s population, it is vital for historical organizations to reach Marylanders of all kinds of backgrounds and communities. (16)

For me, as a communications intern at MdHS, this has often meant intentionally seeking out and amplifying the voices and stories of Maryland’s African Americans in our collections that might otherwise get forgotten. I have used social media and other digital platforms to highlight the stories of lesser-known Marylanders, who may not always receive enough attention in history textbooks and classrooms. This blog post is just one small contribution to those efforts. However, highlighting African American history in Maryland is not enough.

As black history transcends states, nations, and continents, I encourage local museums to think about African American Marylanders in relation to the rest of the world. We must fully follow the lives of African Americans from Maryland, even when they leave the state’s borders. Examining how and why African Americans left, and sometimes returned to, Maryland may suggest the extent to which the state welcomed or struggled with racial difference throughout its history.

We can be honest about the fear and terror that pushed Douglass, Henson, and other formerly enslaved people to leave Maryland. As Douglass affirmed when he returned to the state after the Civil War, “I did not leave because I loved Maryland less, but freedom more.” (17) At the same time, Douglass’s decision to return home after abolition possibly reflected a faith in Maryland’s potential to live up to the nation’s inclusive ideals. The mix of stories of oppression and exile with stories of return and promise symbolize struggles with race and belonging in Maryland (and the United States) continuing to this day. (Matt Randolph)

 

About the Author

Matt Randolph is a Communications and Social Media Intern at the Maryland Historical Society for Spring 2019. He grew up in Maryland before attending Amherst College in Massachusetts and studying abroad in Santiago, Chile. Matt is also an incoming PhD student in History at Stanford University. His research interests lie at the crossroads of United States, Caribbean, and Latin American history. He is specifically drawn to solidarities forged and differences overcome between African Americans and other people of African descent in the Atlantic World.

At Stanford, he plans to explore the transnational experiences of late nineteenth-century African Americans from the United States who served as diplomats in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He hopes his research encourages all scholars to appreciate the past, present, and future of the African diaspora as a whole.

 


 

(1)  Suzanne Ellery Chapelle, Jean B. Russo, et al, Maryland: A History, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).

(2) “Mathias de Sousa: From Indentured Servant to Freeman,” Historic Saint Mary’s City. https://hsmcdigshistory.org/research/history/mathias-de-sousa/.

(3)  Bogen, David, “Mathias de Sousa: Maryland’s First Colonist of African Descent,” Maryland Historical Magazine 96, no. 1, ( 2001): 70.

(4)  Ibid, 78.

(5)  Brock, Jared, “The Story of Josiah Henson, the Real Inspiration for ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Smithsonian Magazine. 16 May 2018,  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/story-josiah-henson-real-inspiration-uncle-toms-cabin-180969094/.

(6)  Henson, Josiah, The Life of Josiah Henson (New York, 2015: Dover Publication, Inc.), 88.

(7)  Johnson, Ronald Angelo, “Frederick Douglass and a Diplomacy of Blackness,” Black Perspectives (blog), 23 April 2019,

(8) Ibid.

(9) Douglass, Frederick, “A Friendly Word to Maryland. A lecture delivered by Frederick Douglass, Esq. in Bethel Church on the 17th of November, 1864” (Baltimore: John W. Woods, 1864). 3.

(10)  Douglass, Frederick, “A Friendly Word to Maryland,” p. 5.

(11)  Wade, Benjamin Franklin, White, Andrew Dickson, and Howe, Samuel Gridley, “Dominican Republic: Report of the Commission of inquiry to Santo Domingo,” 1871.

(12)  Constitution and Laws of Maryland in Liberia, with an Appendix of Precedents, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: John D. Toy 1847).

(13) Ibid.

(14) Lugenbeel, J. W., “Sketches of Liberia: Comprising a Brief Account of the Geography, Climate, Productions, and Diseases of the Republic of Liberia,” 3rd ed. (Washington: C. Alexander, 1853), 2.

(15)  Ibid, 42.

(16) “QuickFacts, Maryland.” United States Census Bureau.

(17)  Douglass, Frederick, “A Friendly Word to Maryland,” 8.

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