Slavery and Freedom in Baltimore City:
What can be known about the Black Community
prior to the Civil War
In 1812 as the country and the City of Baltimore prepared for war, and again in 1817 when the city’s boundaries were enlarged in a time of rapid economic growth and increasing demand for city services, a concerted effort was made to identify all the taxable property in the city including lots with or without improvements, slaves and personal effects such as furniture, horses, and wagons. This transcription and index focuses on the slaves, the slave holders, and the taxable property of Free Blacks between 1813 and 1818, providing a ward by ward analysis of slaveholding in the city with the names of the slaves, and insight into the degree and distribution of the taxable wealth of Free Blacks in each ward. There were 8 wards in 1813 and initially 11 in 1818 when the city boundaries were expanded by legislative fiat to approximately 15 square miles.
Following in the tradition of Ralph Clayton and Jerry M. Hynson, Noreen Goodson and Donna Hollie have painstakingly transcribed and indexed the property tax lists of Baltimore City for 1813 and 1818 for free Blacks, slaves, and slave owners. Entitled Though the Tax Assessor’s Eyers: Enslaved People, Free Blacks and Slaveholders in Early Nineteenth Century Baltimore, It is works like this that help put a name, if not a face, to the struggle for economic and personal freedom in the largest urban area in a slave state, a city that vied for third and second place among all cities in the United States in the years before the Civil War. For the period of time covered by their book, 1813-1818, the Free Black population in Baltimore with a total population of 46,555 (1810), grew from about 5,671 to 10,326 within a total population of 62,738 (1820). At the same time the resident slave population declined from 4,672 to 4,357, a pattern that would continue until slavery was abolished in 1864. Slavery did not thrive in the cities as Richard Wade points out, except perhaps as domestic servants, while manumitted slaves and generations of free Blacks increased as a significant element of the workforce and the religious community of Baltimore.
A number of historians have provided overviews of the rise of the free Black population, and the decline of slavery in Baltimore. Among the best are Barbara Jeanne Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground, Maryland During the Nineteenth Century, Christopher Phillips’ Freedom’s Port, Seth Rockman’s Scraping By, T. Stephen Whitman’s The Price of Freedom, and Richard C. Wade’s Slavery in the Cities. Particularly helpful are Barbara Fields, Christopher Phillips, Steve Whitman, and Seth Rockman who provide a clear picture of the struggles of the working poor, black and white, to survive and succeed in a world that became increasingly discriminatory and restrictive. In doing so they make use of the broad brush that manumissions, census records, city directories, petitions to city officials, bank ledgers, and tax records provide, most which can be accessed at the Baltimore City Archives where the originals of the 1813 and 1818 property tax lists transcribed and indexed here, reside (see: BRG4: Baltimore City Property Tax Records (see further information about researching Property Tax Records for an itemized listing of the surviving tax records). Stephen Whitman uncovered records relating to employers, and with Seth Rockman’s study it is possible to better understand the struggle of Black and white wage earners to make a living for themselves in an increasingly industrialized world where labor was at a distinct disadvantage in securing a rightful share of the economic largesse. More recently, Andrew K. Diemer in The Politics of Black Citizenship has charted the struggle within the pre-civil war black communities of Baltimore and Philadelphia over emigration and acquiring full citizenship, which is helpful in delineating the black leadership in both communities.
But we still do not know the community as individuals and of their individual accomplishments in a city of limited promise for the Free Black and Slave population. Beginning with Bettye Jane Gardner’s Free Blacks in Baltimore, 1800-1860 (1974), Ralph Clayton’s Black Baltimore,1820-1870, and Jerry M. Hynson’s compilations of fugitive slaves, emigrant free blacks, and blacks in the city and county jails, it has been possible to begin to identify who the slaves and free Blacks were in Baltimore, and to gain some insight into the lives of individuals and their families. Because of Ralph Clayton’s Cash for Blood, we are also able to better understand who was affected by the domestic slave trade out of Baltimore to New Orleans and other points South, which always posed a threat to the slaves and free Blacks of Baltimore. The former, always in fear of being sold South, the latter always in danger of being stolen and being pulled back into slavery for a journey in which their lives and their futures might well be lost altogether to the relentless appetite of slavery.
This work pushes back to 1813 and forward to 1818, the knowledge of who were the Black property owners and holders of slaves in Baltimore City prior to the 1830s. For the period prior to 1813, Richard Cox and Wilbur Hunter indexed the names on the tax lists of Baltimore City from 1798-1808, but not the race. Apart from the overview that Christopher Phillips provides for that period and a few examples elsewhere, who those Black property owners were and the names of slave owners and their owners in those years remain for future identification, although with Benjamin Ennis, who does appear in these tax lists, it is possible to sample how free Blacks purchased ground rent property and acquired houses for themselves prior to 1813.
What can be known from the Cox index is that only 10 of the Black property owners in this volume assessed with property over $100 appear in the tax records prior to 1808. It is in the years covered by this volume that Black property owners in particular surfaced in Baltimore to be taxed in defense of the city, and they appear to have sustained a presence on the subsequent tax rolls, some of whom, as Christopher Phillips points out, became substantial property owners. While he cites only a few examples such as Thomas Green, and makes the overall argument that there were only 58 free Blacks who owned their own houses, with the tax lists, bank records-especially the Savings Bank of Baltimore, and probate records it is not only possible to know who they were and what they accomplished for themselves and their families, but also that the number of Black owners of housing was quite likely considerably higher. For example in 1815, Phillips located only 58 Black owners, but this volume identifies about 250 Black property owners paying taxes on lots and improvement between 1813 and 1818, of whom approximately 64 were assessed with property worth $100 or more. Isaac Whipper who lived on Tyson Street, owned four brick houses. Moreover of the total number of Black property owners, there were 36 women assessed in their own right. Whether or not they all owned their own houses is not easy to ascertain for certain because of the ground rent system and the loss of the Baltimore City chattel records but it is clear that black property ownership increased dramatically between 1813 and 1818. In all 47 individuals were taxed with lots in 1813, of whom 25 reappeared on the 1818 tax list. In 1818 204 individuals were taxed with lots. Where this property was concentrated is also apparent from the tax lists.
For much of the pre-Civil War period actual black ownership of housing is obscured by a complex ground rent system for which Baltimore is well known and that today remains a title quagmire that the legislature and the courts are still attempting to resolve. In essence the problem is that the original title to land in the city is rooted in land grants called patents. In developing Baltimore City those who held title under a land grant for the most part did not sell their land outright, but leased it out for development on what is known as ground rents. That freed up the capital that otherwise the lessee/renter would have to sink into the acquisition of the land outright if he or she was required to pay full market value of the land. Instead he or she paid about 6% of the value of the land at the time of the rental as an annual fee for the duration of the lease (often 99 years). The renter was then free to build on the land and in turn sell the building with the ground rent requirement to whomever he or she pleased. Over time many ground rents were subleased and sub-subleased (even sub-sub-sub leased) on often long term leases (99 years). While White owners were able to pass their ground rent holdings on to their heirs through probate, it is not clear whether or not Blacks were able to do likewise with any frequency, but as long as they lived and paid the ground rent the houses they acquired were their own.
The clues to Black ownership of housing are the tax records supplemented by land records.. For the period covered by this volume, take for example Honey Alley, later Hughes Street in West Baltimore. All the lots along Honey Alley between South Charles and Light Street were originally part of Luns Lot, a large tract purchased by Colonel John Eager Howard and renamed Howard’s Addition to Baltimore. Colonel Howard had the addition surveyed into 937 lots which he in turn leased out on ground rents. As late as 1831 his estate was still collecting the ground rents on a significant portion of the original addition, although some of the ground rents had been sold. In the portion of Honey Alley bounded by Charles and Light, some of the ground rents to the numbered lots had been subleased to developers such as John McDonogh who in turn subleased portions of the lots he leased from Colonel Howard to Black owners of the houses on the lots who in turn he made responsible for all municipal taxes. Such was the case of Benjamin Ennis of Honey Alley who lived in his frame house on the north side of the alley for at least 33 years. Benjamin Ennis, probably a veteran of the American Revolution, appears first on the municipal tax list of 1813 as Benjamin Annis which is corrected to Ennis by 1818. In both lists he is charged with a lot and improvements. In 1808 Benjamin Annis/Ennis (both names are used in the land records relating to his property) leased a portion of Howard lot 874 on Honey Alley which had been subleased by John Eager Howard to John McDonogh in 1794. In that year John McDonogh subleased the adjoining lots 880, 877, and part of lot 874 (on which Benjamin Ennis’s house would be built). It is not clear whether Mcdonogh built the two story frame house, or Ennis did, but in 1808 it was Ennis’s on a 99 year ground rent lease payable to McDonogh with a provision that all taxes would be paid by Ennis and that failure to pay the ground rent to McDonogh or his assignee within 60 days of the due date could result in the loss of Ennis’s lease and improvements on it. In other words, Benjamin Ennis owned his house as long as he paid the ground rent to McDonogh, while McDonogh was responsible for paying the original ground rent to Colonel Howard. Even if McDonogh failed to pay his ground rent to Colonel Howard, Ennis would still own the house he occupied, as long as he paid the ground rent owed specified in the lease from McDonogh, and the taxes owed the city. After Ennis died it would appear that his heirs failed to pay the ground rent and the property reverted to the person to whom Ennis had owed the ground rent. 6It would take a court case and a land patent to resolve who owned the property, but in the end the Ennis family did not.
A further problem is that apparently Free Blacks rarely appear in probate (wills, inventories, and administration accounts of estates) prior to the Civil War and possibly took pains to hide their wealth. The evidence is anecdotal so far, but it may be that Free Blacks generally kept their liquid assets as cash hidden from view. For example one wealthy Free Black who lost his first fortune in a failed bank, lost his second to robbery. The robber was caught and sent to prison, but it is not known if the money was recovered. Some free blacks, particularly women, did avail themselves of bank accounts, particularly with the Savings Bank of Baltimore which asserted that it was color blind. A forthcoming study of blacks and property owners before the Civil War, including the depositors at the bank by Marcus Allen will illuminate who those depositors were and the extent of their banking wealth. It probably will never be known how many of the over 17,000 free blacks in Baltimore City by the time Frederick Douglass left in September 1838 were owners of their own homes, nor will we fully understand the extent of their personal wealth. It can only be assumed that the tax collector’s net captured most and that the bulk of the free black population were renters who moved with some frequency about the city, although some, like James Mingo, the host of the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society to which Frederick Douglass belonged, apparently lived out his adult life with his family on Happy Alley, in the same frame house without ever making it into the tax lists. If he owned his house, it is obscured by the ownership of the groundrents who happened to be the descendants/heirs of the original owners of Fell’s Point. Tracing such details has been made nearly impossible by the much regretted destruction of the Baltimore City Chattel records which recorded the sale and transfer of such personal property as slaves and ground rents. In James Mingo’s case the 1813/1818 tax records merely suggest that the Fell family heirs owned the land on which his house was situated and that they owed any taxes due.
With the exception of Leroy Graham’s Black Baltimore, little has been done to tell the life stories of those Free Blacks who remained to live and work in Baltimore in the years prior to that fateful day in November, 1864, when Maryland abolished slavery. Charles Steffen in The Mechanics of Baltimore provides insight into the interaction among slaves, Free Blacks and white workers, including an analysis of the free and slave laborers at the Despeaux shipyard in Fells Point, not far from where Frederick Douglass lived and worked as a caulker, but who those Free Blacks were and what can be known about their lives, let alone what they looked like remains a challenge. The profiles in this volume are an excellent beginning. The authors have provided brief notices of the lives of both slave owners and free blacks found in the tax lists. While far from complete, it is intended to demonstrate what can be done to bring substance to the lives of people, especially free blacks and slaves who contributed so much to the economic and cultural growth of Baltimore City. Sadly there are few images of the pre-Civil War black community. The most famous are of those who left, including Reverend Daniel Coker, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Reverend Darius Stokes. The only known Black portrait painter in Maryland in the antebellum years, Joshua Johnson, a resident of Fells Point, painted only two known portraits of Black residents of Baltimore, both probably pastors, and the one identified, emigrated to Liberia. Indeed the most photographed individual in 19th century America was Frederick Douglass who fled the city, rather than face the uncertainty of a promise of future freedom (in six years) offered by his master.
Black Churches were the focal point of Black Culture in the city and were the primary place of religious and secular education. The only known image of the interior of a Baltimore Black church and its congregation (1845) is symbolic of the difficulty of putting faces to the Free Black community. For the most part the women are obscured by their bonnets, while all but a few of the men are hidden in the crowd. The presiding pastor, Darius Stokes, a Baltimore born drayman by trade, who became a Methodist minister, proved to be an aggressive leader of the Black community centered on Bethel Church, the largest Black congregation in Baltimore. Yet he found the tensions within his congregation too great to bear, especially after one community meeting in which he was bloodied by an angry woman. Rather than emigrate to Liberia or Haiti, he chose to follow the American dream to California with the Gold Rush where he served a number of Black Methodist congregations including one in the capital Sacramento. He was described as a “colored preacher who makes a respectable sermon, and is probably as upright as the majority of Americans.” As to his congregation in Sacramento, he lamented that “the few of our brethren who were here, were rushing too madly on in pursuit of mammon.” Darius’s brother, Reverend Eli Worthington Stokes, for whom there is no known image, fled in the other direction to New England where he became a popular preacher in the Episcopal Church, and died in 1867 as a Protestant Episcopal missionary in Liberia.
Old Hagar, 1834 by Samuel Smith, artist, Hamilton row, Hamilton street, Baltimore, courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, and Moses Small, Newsvendor, 1858 by Thomas Waterman Wood, courtesy of the
San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts
Until the black men of Baltimore became soldiers in the Union Army there appear to be no family portraits of the Antebellum Free Blacks of Baltimore. A few Blacks including children are featured as individuals in the paintings of white artists of the 1840s and 50s, but most such images are usually slaves and without identification. Apparently the singular exceptions found to date are Moses Small the newspaper vendor, and Hagar, a former slave, who was said to have lived to 104 when her wooden house in Apple Alley was consumed by fire. Neither Moses, who died venerated by the white community in 1861, nor Hagar who died in 1834, appears in these tax lists, although both were adults and working in the city at the time. While Moses was married and they raised a family, he apparently never owned a home of his own, nor did he have sufficient visible personal property to be taxed, even though he was one of the subscribers to John Fortie’s efforts to fund private education for Free Black children in 1838. Indeed literacy among the Free Black population deserves re-thinking, especially among the female population. Again the evidence to date is sparse and largely anecdotal. Only one letter is known to have survived from a Baltimore house slave and that is from 1861, but the Sabbath and possibly the day schools were not limited to males. William Watkins provided Frances Ellen Watkins Harper with a well rounded education which enabled her to begin publishing her poetry which she probably began composing when she was a Free Black domestic servant in Baltimore, while Reverend Stokes and Reverend Fortie, among others saw to it that their congregations had Sabbath and day schools that taught reading and writing. Still, with works such as this, it is possible to begin to systematically piece together the stories of the lives of one of, if not the, the largest urban Free Black communities in the United States before the Civil War. Through collaborative genealogy and profilography (an awkward term I coined for collective biography) in an online setting, mining census schedules, tax lists, city directories, newspapers, court records, and http://mdlandrec.net, it will be possible to acquire a better appreciation of those men and women who struggled to maintain their modicum of freedom in a slave state, deciding not to flee, but to stay, making the most of what the City of Promise, no matter how limited to Free Blacks, had to offer.
©Edward C. Papenfuse,
Maryland State Archivist, retired