Forgotten Forefathers of Maryland (Guest Blog)

By Steven X. Lee

The greatest story never told in Maryland is the history of her free early African American people. From the fixed focus of slavery radiates Maryland African American history as it is documented and presented. But Maryland, as a Colony and a State, was home to the largest free black population prior to the Civil War, whose stories are equally significant. Their impact was profound and integral in the making of Maryland, and the nation. Yet this remarkable dimension of Maryland’s history, of a people’s heritage, is largely omitted in the Maryland education and historical milieu.

The history of Maryland’s African Americans does not begin with slavery.  It begins with free and indentured black passengers on the Ark and Dove 1634 landing upon the Maryland shore.  There were at least three men of African descent in the passenger manifest: John Price, Mimus and Mathias deSousa, who, like so many of their free and indentured white brethren on those ships, freely chose to blaze life anew in the Colony. (Not until 1642 did the first slave-ships arrive, marking slavery’s introduction.)  Thus from inception, the population and story of Maryland African Americans begins with, and grows from, free people.

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Robert Bannaky Historical Marker, mounted on rock at the first intersection in the
Benjamin Banneker Historical Park, in Oella.

The contributions of Benjamin Banneker, first African American scientist, and the dedicated service of Jocko Graves, are icons often cited in the Early Maryland story. But these two Revolutionary War Era figures are typically presented as anomalies among a generally enslaved black population. In actuality there were thousands of free African American women and men across the state at that time. Benjamin Banneker’s parents, Robert and Mary Bannaky, themselves were pioneer members of a burgeoning community of free blacks that came to be known as Mount Gilboa in Baltimore County. The Hill in Easton and Scott’s Point in Chestertown are but two more of the many vibrant free black communities rooted in Early Maryland.

Boyd Rutherford

Bethel A.M.E. Church, The Hill, Easton. From this very pulpit Frederick Douglass once addressed the congregation of this historic black church. Here, Maryland Lt. Governor Boyd Rutherford speaks from it on February 27th, 2016.

There have been historians who purposely sought to encourage a balanced view of the early Maryland African American experience.  There’s the work of historian Reverend George Bragg of Baltimore, who recorded the legacy of both free and enslaved African Americans in his 1914 book Men of Maryland (including accounts of women as well).  There were oral histories told by the late-20th/early-21th century griot, Jacqueline Lanier, who regularly infused accounts of Maryland’s free early African Americans throughout her storytelling and lectures. But, by and large, the conventional cast for early Maryland African American history has been one-dimensional, around the focal point of enslaved people.

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Cannon Street, Scott’s Point of Chestertown. From late 18th century onwards, many prominent free African Americans resided on this street, including the wealthy African American businessman, Thomas Cuff.

With the realization that there were multitudes of free African Americans residing in Revolutionary War Era Maryland, it defies reason to accept the conventional depiction of black people essentially as slaves with peripheral lives, during this momentous period. What truly were the lives, the roles, the contributions of free African Americans to the rise of Maryland and the United States of America?  Certainly this is one of the missing chapters in the greatest Maryland story never told.

The American Revolution was a time of heroic exploits and battles, exceptional sacrifice and camaraderie, of multi-cultural colonists bonding to forge our State and Union. But as I went from K through 12, not one of my Maryland schoolbooks taught that among those many valiant soldiers, were free Maryland African Americans serving in the Revolutionary War.

Jackie Lanier 1

Jacqueline Lanier (1947 – 2003) – Collector, storyteller and jazz historian WEAA radio host.

Maryland African Americans served at all levels of defense: in the civilian guard, state militia, and Continental Army. General George Washington and the governor came to remove all barriers to African American enlistment, calling upon those free and enslaved to help meet depleted troop quotas faced in the Continental Army and the Maryland Line.  In July of 1780, during the drive to raise troops in St. Mary’s County, Richard Barnes, son of Colonel Abraham Barnes, wrote in a correspondence to Maryland Governor Thomas Lee: “Our recruiting business in this County goes on much worse than I expected. … The greatest part of those that have enlisted are free Negroes & Mulattoes.” [1]

In one instance of Charles County, six “Mulatto” men, all appearing to be of the same family, registered. [2]  Charles, Francis, Henry, Leonard, Thomas and William were all ‘Proctors’ who enlisted at the same place and time.  That was a most substantial sacrifice for any family to give to a war.

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“We have undertaken to present … in addition to the historical sketches given, some important data throwing light upon the history of “black slaves”, and “free blacks”, in Maryland…” 
 – Rev. George F. Bragg, excerpt from his book MEN OF MARYLAND, 1914

Of the services and sufferings of the colored soldiers of the Revolution, no attempt has, to our knowledge, been made to preserve a record.  Their history is not written; it lies upon the soil watered with their blood: who shall gather it?” [3]  These were the words of publisher, librarian and teacher, William Howard Day in 1852, when he addressed ‘The National Convention of the Colored Freemen’ held in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Sources vary in the total amount given for Maryland African American Revolutionary War soldiers. Estimates range from 1,200 to over 8,000 serving in battalions of the Continental Army, Maryland Line, as well as in the Maryland Flying Camp, which reportedly had at least six black servicemen in 1776.  The First Maryland Brigade had at least 60 African American troops serving that year. [4]

RevolutionaryWar Soldier (1) (1)It will take a concerted effort to truly restore the histories of Maryland’s unsung black soldiers, to unbury and compile the many scattered, overlooked vestiges of records, artifacts and stories.  It was thanks to a found 1828 newspaper obituary that the bravery and many battle exploits of Thomas Carney were recovered – a black Maryland Revolutionary War superhero, highlighted in a 1989 Maryland Historical Magazine article by William Calderhead. [5]

Free African Americans just as earnestly defended the new nation on the civilian front.  Early in the war General Washington proposed hiring free black wagoners from Maryland. [6] Equally integral and relevant was the role of free African American watermen, as the Chesapeake Bay was a vital transportation and strategic battlefront. Hence Maryland’s free black watermen were employed, where their maritime and boat-building skills, knowledge of the Bay and its islands, were invaluable.

So interwoven and extensive was the role of free African Americans in Revolutionary War Era Maryland, that it gives pause as to how/why have they been omitted in education and history.  It is the call of the ancestors, to recall to life the lost songs and stories of those who are indeed forgotten forefathers of our nation.  The history of Maryland is misunderstood and incomplete without them.

Steven X. Lee serves on the Maryland Commission of African American History and Culture and is the Program Director of The Heritage Museum. He also served as the Founding Director of the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum.

All photo credits are the author’s unless otherwise indicated.

References

[1]  Richard Barnes to Governor Lee, July 23,1780, Archives of Maryland XLV, 24  /  The Negro in the American Revolution, p. 56, Benjamin Quarles, 1961

[2]  Forgotten Patriots, Daughters of the American Revolution 2008

[3]  “Proceeding of the Convention of Colored Freemen”, Cincinnati Ohio,1852  /  The Black Phalanx, 21, Joseph T. Wilson, 1994

[4]  “Finding the Maryland 400”, the Maryland State Archives  /  Muster Rolls and other Records of Service of Maryland Troops in the American Revolution, Archives of Maryland Online vol.18, and fold3.com

[5]  William L. Calderhead, MARYLAND HISTORICAI. MAGAZINE vol. 84, no. 4, WINTER 1989, 319-321

[6]  Headquarter to the Committee of Congress with the Army, Jan. 29, 1778, Fitzpatrick, ed., Writings of Washington, X, 401  /  The Negro in the American Revolution, p. 100, Benjamin Quarles, 1961