By Delonte Harrod, Special to the AFRO
At the end of the War of 1812, Levin Ballard, a slave master in Calvert County, Maryland sent a letter to Congress asking for money for the loss of property, livestock, and slaves who escaped with the British at the end of the war. At the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, the federal government guaranteed slaveholders in the middle Atlantic, if they could prove they sided with the British, reparations.
On October 6, residents of Calvert County, specifically members of the Lower Marlboro community – a small town on the edge of Prince George’s County – came together to remember and celebrate, not the slaveholders, but those who sought freedom from oppression. Lower Marlboro Freedom Day was started to share the stories of former enslaved African-Americans who escaped the horrors of slavery in Calvert County to side with the British in the War of 1812.
“It’s important to let African-Americans – kids, adults, and the community – know the history of Calvert County,” said Chris Banks, president of Calvert County Historical Society. “[ People know] that Calvert County had slaves, but maybe they didn’t realize that there were slaves who didn’t want to remain slaves and that some of them left slavery not through violence, but by going with the British during the War of 1812.”
The annual event entailed a series of speeches–including a brief reenactment of a slave telling her master, a White woman, she was going to fight with British to obtain her freedom; food; and free kayaking tours. Historians set up old maps of Maryland during the time of the war for visitors to view, attendees could view artifacts from archeological excavations around Maryland, and buy historical books about the tobacco-driven, slave labor economy in southern Maryland.
The document written by Ballard to Congress, which can be viewed at Maryland State Archives, has six adult names and 8 children’s names, some of which are hard to make out due to the style of writing.
“Charles Stewart; Adam Green; Sarah (the wife of Charles Stewart); Eve; Mary, Eve and Phillis (three sisters of Sarah and Adam); Betty (18 years old, the daughter of Sarah, and the wife of a free man named Jesse Coats); Eliza (10 months); Juliet; Lane and Rebecca (Sarah’s children); Suckey (child of Betty); Franny (child of Phillis, 2 or 3 years old); and Sophia (a child),” Kirsti Uunila, historic preservation planner of the Calvert County Government, read while recounting the history during her presentation. “These are the names of the people that we are here to celebrate today.”
Banks and Uunila said the British wanted to free the slaves to weaken the infrastructure of America. Freeing slaves and burning slaveholders’ tobacco stock and barns would weaken the local economy. The call was mostly to men, but women could also go, as the British saw that some men wouldn’t leave the county for freedom without their families.
African-American men were trained for combat, equipping them with uniforms and weapons. The British militia’s high-ranking officials thought highly of the men, according to Banks and Uunila. “They were regarded for their respect, their discipline, veracity, their order and their dedication to the cause,” said Uunila.
The women and children cooked and cleaned. The British told the former slaves that they weren’t there as slaves, but allies aiding them in their cause. Uunila said former slaves, now trained in combat and carrying guns, put fear in the hearts of slave owners like Elizabeth Ballard, perhaps related to Levin Ballard. Uunila told a story of Ballard’s former slave who entered her home, dressed in uniform carrying a gun to retrieve his still-enslaved daughter from his former master.
In all, Banks and Uunila believe that about 273 African-Americans left Calvert County to side with the British to obtain their freedom. After the war, the British settled the refugees in Nova Scotia, Trinidad, and Jamaica. However, not all slaves in Calvert County parted with the British, said Michael Kent, NAACP president, and local historian.
Kent is a descendant of a multiethnic family whose roots trace back to slaves and White slaveholders in Calvert County. Kent’s ancestors, who were slaves, decided not to leave Calvert County. “It was a tough decision to make . . .,” Kent said during his presentation. “If they left [Calvert County] they would have to go to another country, they would have to learn another language [as well as] learn other things from scratch. They knew what to expect in Calvert County.”
There were other reasons as well. Kent said some slaves didn’t want to leave their families behind. They feared that they would never see some of their family members again if they left. In addition, the slaves knew that eventually, they were going to age out of chattel slavery. According to Kent, when a male slave turned 40 years old, he would be useless to his master and when women inched toward their mid-thirties, they also were considered useless, unless they returned to domestic work (housekeeping).
Around those ages, they were unable to participate in tobacco cutting, a form of hard harsh labor.
Slave masters “wouldn’t have much use for them in the field anymore,” said Kent. Keeping the slaves who were unable to cut and hang tobacco would cost slaveowners more money, according to Kent. Eventually, the slave masters would release them from slavery.
It must be noted that just because a slave was free from forced labor didn’t mean he or she was considered equal to White people. They still had to obey rules that governed their bodies. For example, they had to carry documentation detailing their freedom from slavery. If free Blacks didn’t, Whites could legally sell them back into slavery.
After taking a tour through history, the Rev. Kevin Phelps, rector at All Saints Church in Huntington, MD, gave the final conclusions. Rector grounded his remarks in the Christian tradition of confession. Phelps spoke to the mostly White crowd, sprinkled with a few African-Americans, about the Episcopal church’s participation in slavery, and how the church was built with slave labor. “Each brick was pressed by slaves,” said Phelps.
Phelps also talked about remembering, and collective repentance for participating in slavery and healing relationships with African-Americans. “We have to tell these stories, we have to hear these stories and we have to draw these stories out, and we have to hear new ones,” said Phelps, who has started a reconciliation group at his church.
Phelps said Episcopalians celebrate Thomas Claggett, the first bishop to be appointed in America, but never talk about the fact that his family owned 32 African slaves. We never talk about the fact that the architects who designed All Saints Church hired slaves from nearby farms to do the work.
“So those stories go unspoken,” said Phelps. “It is important that we remember those stories. Our church is trying to repent of that. Repent in the sense that we have to come to grips with that, that the wealth of this county, the wealth of the church is due to the labor of [Black] men, women, and children. We have to come to grips with that, because if we can’t do that, the best part that comes at the end of reconciliation, the sharing of the peace, the embracing of each other that says I forgive you is impossible. This is why this is important. We need to invite others into this process.”