Some powerful myths have long dominated thinking about the history of slavery in western Maryland (and especially Washington County). When I start to talk about slavery with people who live here, or when I read what’s been written about slavery locally, I run up against long-repeated false ideas that can stand in the way of understanding history clearly. In this blog post I’m going to address seven of those ideas.
1. Myth: “He was a kind master.”
You read this one most often (though not only) about John Blackford of Ferry Hill, who was not kind to the people he enslaved. He beat them for incidents like accidentally breaking things. He was contemptuous and tyrannical towards the people he legally owned. The myth of his “kindness” originates with one white scholar, Fletcher M. Green, who published one of John Blackford’s journals in 1961 and wrote an introduction for it. Green wrote that Blackford “showered his slaves with special favors” when describing some limited and normal privileges they had; on the same page Green listed the whippings and beatings Blackford inflicted on them. Taking Blackford’s perspective, Green even called the people enslaved at Ferry Hill “an ill-behaved lot.”
Because Ferry Hill is one of the best documented slave-worked sites in the region, Green’s racist assessment of Ferry Hill has had an outsized impact on thinking about slavery locally. In fact Blackford was typical, but not in being kind. He was arbitrary, tyranical, and cruel, and he was not alone in this.
2. Myth: “My [white] ancestors treated the slaves like family.”
Slavery was a system of violence and coercion. Even when relations between enslavers and the enslaved seem, from the historical distance where we stand, to have been peaceable and friendly, the enslaved person lived under legal duress. If people enslaved in western Maryland ran away, they were chased, retrieved, and severely punished. After freedom came, some freed people did remain with their former enslavers and work for them, often for the rest of their lives. We can speculate about why that was, but we can’t know for sure. Others chose to leave. Sarah, a woman who was manumitted (that is, legally freed) in Washington County in the 1850s, immediately found a new job. Her new employer wrote, “Sarah came to work for us the day she was freed, thinking that if she was with any member of her mistress’ family, she would not realize her freedom.”
3. Myth: “Maybe he bought slaves in order to free them.”
White people sometimes say this about a white historical figure they admire but who was a slaveholder. Let go of this idea. I’ve found one case of it happening locally (it’s described by the Rev. Thomas Henry, an A.M.E. preacher, in his memoirs; the white man was the Rev. John Kerfoot) and the courthouse records show that it wasn’t quite as sunny a story in real life. There’s also a completely undocumented oral tradition that Daniel Wolf, who lived near Boonsboro, did this. These are (possible) exceptions to the general reason why white people bought slaves: to be workers.
On the other hand, free African Americans did buy slaves to rescue them from slavery. They bought their relatives, and sometimes they bought other people. Whether they formally freed them or not (and freeing them could have legal disadvantages, ironically), they did this to reunite their families and remove them from the power of white enslavers.
4. Myth: “The German settlers didn’t hold slaves.”
They did. Plenty of German families in western Maryland held slaves. While many of the largest enslavers were of English descent, Germans also participated fully in slavery. Here are just a few of the German surnames of enslavers in Hagerstown itself in 1850: Hager, Fechsig, Kline, Heiser, Fiery, Brachman, Rench, Kealhofer… Across the whole county, there were many, many more.
5. Myth: “Slaves were sold at four places in Washington County: Sharpsburg, Beaver Creek, and two sites in Hagerstown.”
This assertion, repeated in many publications, traces back to the existence of four stones that are thought to have been slave auction blocks. (I believe Mrs. Marguerite Doleman, an outstanding pioneer of black history in Washington County, was the first person to identify all four stones and draw this conclusion.) One of these stone blocks is now on display in the Smithsonian’s NMAAHC. But in fact no one needed an auction block, or even an auction, to sell an enslaved person. Slaves were sold virtually everywhere. Auctions took place on farms and at taverns. Private sales happened in offices or at back doors or wherever people met. Professional slave traders traveled throughout the region buying people a few at a time from farms. Slave-trading was an integral part of slavery.
6. Myth: “It was against the law (in Maryland) to teach slaves to read and write.”
Virginia and most deep south states had laws like this, but Maryland did not. Of course, in a time of limited literacy for everyone, African Americans were at the bottom of the ladder when it came to access to education. Even free people of color were rarely able to read and write, and most enslaved people could forget about these valuable skills. Many enslavers deliberately kept slaves from learning. But it wasn’t illegal, and some enslaved people did (legally) learn to read and write in Maryland.
7. Myth: “Manumissions (legal acts of freeing) were the reason why the free black and enslaved population were roughly equal in Washington County by the 1850s.”
True fact, by 1850 there were slightly more free African Americans than slaves in Washington County. But why was that? It wasn’t because people had simply been moving from slave status to free status. And I’ll explain why. I’ll focus on Washington County, but the general principles also apply in Frederick County.
The total population of Washington County grew steadily from 1790 to 1860. But the black population peaked in 1840 and then started falling. The number of enslaved people had already peaked in 1820. The numbers are complicated. But it’s very clear that the African American population was not just living and growing normally in Washington County, while only changing status (through manumissions). In fact, two other forces were acting to suppress the black population numbers: sales and escapes.
Throughout the slavery era, professional slave traders circulated through Maryland and the rest of the upper south, buying enslaved people to ship to the cotton and sugar plantations of the deep south. Enslaved people lived in fear of this, right here in western Maryland. There is plenty of evidence that these sales took place on a regular basis in Washington County, tearing apart families and carting off local people to an unknown fate. This significantly reduced the enslaved population numbers.
Partly because they feared being sold south, enslaved people freed themselves by escaping north. The counties of western Maryland, lying along the Mason Dixon Line, were ideally situated for escapes. While no accurate count can be made, again the evidence is very clear that enslaved people fled north in significant numbers every year. Some were successful; some were not. This too reduced the enslaved population.
This is a short post about seven big topics; I could write—and am writing!—more about each of these. But my point for today is that we sometimes need to abandon past assumptions that have been handed down through the generations and long accepted as true. The job of historians is always to look at the evidence, listen to what it tells us, and question preconceptions. Slavery in western Maryland is both familiar and unfamiliar to those who live here. It has aspects that are similar to those of slavery across the south, and features that are distinctive. The more we learn about it, the more fully we can understand both our history and our present.
 Other states that did not prohibit teaching slaves to read and write were Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas. Heather Andrea Williams, Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (U. North Carolina Press, 2005), 216 note 1.