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Free Blacks in Maryland

The number of free blacks in the State of Maryland was quite small until the closing of the Eighteenth Century. The census of 1790 gave eight thousand free blacks in the State. From this time the number increased. In 1807, the permanent policy of prohibiting the removal of free blacks into this State, from elsewhere, was initiated. After that time any free black coming into the State could remain no longer than two weeks. The penalty for a longer continuance was a fine of $10 a week, and being unable to pay the fine he could be sold into slavery for a term sufficient to cover the fine. Somehow, free blacks continued to come, and the statute not being generally enforced additional and more stringent legislation was enacted. Following the great uprising in Virginia, among the blacks, in 1831, laws with increasing severity of punishment were passed. A free black coming into the State, after ten days, was fined $50 a week for every week he remained, half of the money going to the informant. Any person who harbored a free black, thus coming into the State, after four days, was fined $20 a day. Any free black, a resident of the State on going out of the State, should he remain longer than thirty days, without permission, would be deemed a non-resident, and subject to all the conditions which applied to other free blacks entering the State for the first time. But, in order to encourage Colonization, any black could come or go at will between Maryland and Liberia, West Africa.

English women, the servant class, were early imported into the Colony, and were in limited slavery. That is, they were constrained to remain in service for a term of years, in payment of the expense in bringing them to this country. Quite a number of them married black men. The colony of Maryland was established in 1634, and as early as 1664 a law was enacted giving penalties for "such shameful matches," that is, marriage between a white person and a black slave. Such marriages were also forbidden between white women and free blacks. Penalties were specified for the Master who permitted such affiliation, and also the minister officiating. They were fined, each, ten thousand pounds of Tobacco. The law of 1717 is a little curious on this subject. A free black, or mulatto, marrying a white woman would become a slave for life. But, mulattoes, born of white women, should serve only for seven years. In 1777, by the Militia law free blacks were excluded from service, but in 1790 they were specifically included. In 1793 the same Militia law again limits service to white men.

The education of free blacks, and slaves, was not for-bidden by law, in Maryland, but, nevertheless, such enterprises depended upon individuals and members of the Society of Friends. As far back as 1761 the Rev. Thomas Bacon, a clergyman of the Church of England inaugurated a free school for black children in Frederick County. And even long before this time, the same clergyman had inaugurated a school in Talbot County for the poorer classes of both races. Of this effort, Mr. Lawrence C. Wroth, assist-ant Librarian of the Pratt Library, Baltimore, in a published essay, some years ago among other things, said:

Mr. Bacon had set an example in the Province in regard to the Christian education of Negro slaves which was not generally to be followed by either clergy or laity for many generations. It was probably his work among the Negroes which led to the project of founding a sort of manual training or industrial school for poor children. In a subscription paper circulated in 1750, he remarks upon the profaneness and debauchery, idleness and immorality especially among the poorer sort in this province and asks for yearly subscriptions, for setting up a Charity Working School in the Parish of St. Peter's, in Talbot County, for maintaining and teaching poor children to read, write and account, and instructing them in the knowledge and practice of the Christian religion, as taught in the Church of England. A few months later he had received from a goodly list of subscribers, among them the Proprietary and Lady Baltimore, Cecelius Calvert and Bishop Wilson, a sufficient fund for the running expenses, and in the course of a few years his subscriptions permitted the purchase of one hundred acres of land and the erection of a suitable brick home and school. Thus, in the year 1755, and for many thereafter, Talbot County boasted a fine charity school, but thirty years later, when Bacon and nearly all of the original trustees were dead it was turned over to the county for use as a poor house. The institution seems to have been born before its time in so far as Maryland was concerned."

Daniel Coker, a mulatto, whose freedom was purchased by friends, conducted quite a large and flourishing day school for free blacks in the city of Baltimore, previous to the year 1816. In 1824, the Rev. William Levington, founder and rector of St. James First African Protestant Episcopal Church, initiated a free school which was continued, in connection with that church, until long after the close of the Civil War. A Rev. Mr. Watkins, an African Methodist minister, also conducted a day school in the city of Baltimore, for black children; and there were several other such enterprises. From the census of 1860, we learn that there were 1,355 free black children attending school in the State. There were a number of free colored men who owned their wives, and children. They held them in such state to more effectually secure their freedom. There were also a few blacks who owned and hired slaves. Mention is made of a free black of Dorchester county receiving payment for a slave whom he had bought for a term of years, and who was sold out of the State, for crime, by the court. Colored persons, free or slaves, could testify in court, for or against any colored person, but not in any case where a white person was concerned. The child of a white man and a mulatto slave was incapable of witnessing against a white person; but the child of a black man and a white woman, there were not a few cases of such off-spring, was qualified as a witness, during the limited time he was put to service. This was up to 1717.

In 1847, there was a very estimable colored man, the Steward of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, whose wife and children were residing in Philadelphia. Permission for such to visit the husband, and father, was conditioned on their residing in Annapolis, and they should remain only so long as the Steward remained in his present job. A "Washington firm conducted a Summer Resort in St. Mary's county. This firm was only privileged to carry its colored help there on the condition that they should be restricted to the grounds; and when the season was over should immediately return to the city of Washington. A free black woman was fined $250 for five weeks stay in Maryland, and sold into slavery for a term of years, in default of not being able to pay the fine. Color always created the presumption that a black was a slave. It was up to him to prove that he was a "free black." The Maryland Abolition Society (1789) interested itself greatly in preventing the unlawful "kidnapping'' of free black children, who were sold into slavery.

The constitution of 1776 guaranteed the right to vote to all freemen, of age, and who held a certain amount of property. Under this constitution there were quite a number of colored men who exercised the right of franchise; but under the amended constitution of 1810 the suffrage was strictly limited to white men. The ''free" black had the right of petition, and it is a significant fact that this right was most frequently used. It was through "petition" to the legislature that many evils were mitigated on their behalf. A considerable number of free blacks owned small houses, and pieces of land. Some of the Banks received deposits from free blacks. In Annapolis there were several black depositors and one owned shares of the Bank stock.

In 1831, all colored persons were forbidden to assemble or to attend meetings for religious purposes which were not conducted by a white licensed clergyman or by some respectable white of the neighborhood authorized by the clergyman.

In 1842, it was enacted that any free colored person convicted of becoming or continuing to be a member of any secret society whatever, whether it held its meetings in Maryland, or without, should be deemed a felon, and be fined not less than $50. In default of payment, he should be sold for a term sufficient to pay the fine. For the second offense he should be sold out of the State as a slave for life. In 1845, colored Camp-meetings, and similar outdoor gatherings, were strictly and rigidly forbidden.

In the constitutional convention of 1850-51, a Mr. Jacobs, of Worcester County, became the author of a bill before the State Legislature which was generally known as the "Jacobs law," and which stirred the free blacks as, perhaps, no other measure had ever aroused them. Through strenuous efforts the bill was defeated. It had for its object the elimination of all "free" persons of color. Among some of the provisions of this measure were the following: No black should be capable of acquiring real estate in the future; he could not by lease hold any property longer than a year; no free black was permitted to enter the State to remain; no black should be manumitted except on condition that he would leave the State within thirty days. A second "Jacobs' bill" was adopted by the Legislature of 1860, but ere it became effective had to be submitted to the voters of the State at the next ensuing election. This last measure, happily, was defeated by the action of the people. Somerset County was the only county in the State where the bill received a majority of the votes cast. In this last measure manumission was absolutely forbidden, and the way made easy for the return of "free blacks" into slavery.

It was in Baltimore that William Lloyd Garrison began the publication of his paper, "The Genius of Universal Emancipation," declaring that to hold slaves longer in bondage was both unnecessary and tyrannical, that justice demanded their liberation, and that to recompense slave-owners for emancipation would be paying a thief for giving up stolen property. This was in 1829-30. Most stringent laws were passed, with exceedingly heavy fines and imprisonment, for any person, white or black, who in any way aided in the circulation of abolition literature. These laws were particularly severe upon "free blacks.'' Any such person upon whom such literature was found or who called for, or received at the post office, any such literature, upon conviction, was liable to imprisonment from ten to twenty years. And if anyone knew that a person received or possessed such literature, he was liable to a fine of $500 and two months in jail if he failed to report the same.

In Dorchester County, at the April term of the Circuit Court, 1857, a free black was tried before the court on two indictments. On one of these he was found not guilty, but, on the other for knowingly having in his possession a copy of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," he was given the minimum term of ten years. But, this man, in 1862, on the representation of a prominent citizen of Baltimore, that he had been innocent of any attempt at violation of the law, was pardoned by the Governor of Maryland, on the condition of his leaving the State. It was claimed that the book was left in his house by someone who desired to get him into trouble.

 Maryland BiographiesMaryland AHGP

Source: Gazetteer of Maryland, by Henry Gannett, Washington, Government Printing Office, 1904.

 

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