The Possibility of Community

Draft posted: 20210412

In October of 1833, as fall was making a turn around the corner toward winter, Thomas Brown sat down to carefully compose a plea for assistance for himself and his wife. Enslaved to the Jesuits in St. Louis, Brown was writing home to Maryland, to his former Jesuit owners, hoping to convince them to let the Browns purchase their freedom. Brown's wife Molly had been born and raised on White Marsh plantation, and he had labored for the Jesuit for nearly four decades. Now in their fifties, Brown lamented their conditions in St. Louis: "Now we have not a place to lay our heads in our old age after all our Service. We live at present in rotten logg house so old & decayed that at every blast of wind we are afraid of our lives and such as it is it belongs to one of the neighbors.... all the rest of the Slaves are pretty well fixed and Father Verhaegen wants me and my wife to live in the loft of one of the outhouses where there is no fire place Nor any way to warm us during the winter - and your Reverence Knows it is Cold enough here. I have not a doubt but cold will Kill both me and my wife here." Begging an administrator in Maryland, likely William McSherry who was the Provincial at the time, for pity, Brown offered $150 for their freedom, as he had $50 cash in his possession for a down payment.1

Brown's letter represents the only direct voice of the enslaved within the surviving archival materials related to the participation of the Maryland Province Jesuits in enslavement. His rhetorical strategy was sophisticated. First, he made an appeal to his and his wife's many years of faithful service to the Jesuits. Next, he established their standing as elderly members of the community in dire and unjust conditions. Then, he offered to help himself by buying their freedom. Finally, he closed with an appeal to his reader's pity and consideration, pledging, "I will pray for you while I live." The letter is brief and articulate, and as far as we know, the letter went unanswered. Though William McSherry might not have responded to Brown's plea, his letter bridges some of the chasm between the antebellum South in 1833 and readers in 2021.

While the letter reveals some about the callousness of the Jesuit administrators who made decisions about the lives and conditions in which the enslaved lived and labored, it also puts Thomas and Molly Brown's relationship directly in our view. Brown's words depict a dedicated longstanding relationship. They likely had known each other since they were teenagers when Thomas was purchased by the Jesuits. They began their journey to St. Louis in 1823, with a group of more than a dozen other enslaved people who accompanied the Jesuits to found a new mission in Missouri.2 After nearly four decades together, they wished only safety, security, and freedom to live out their elder years, not subject to the whims of Jesuit administrators. Little did Brown know that the Jesuit administrators in Maryland were in midst of undertaking an effort that would take nearly a decade, all told, to divest of all of their enslaved property, relegating many other families to the forced migration of the second middle passage.

In the midst of the execution of the major sale and transfer of hundreds of people to Louisiana in November 1838, we get a glimpse of another key family relationship. The French Jesuit, Fidelis Grivel visited White Marsh plantation and relayed his interactions to Charles Lancaster by letter. Though the majority of the enslaved population on the farm were preparing to be transferred, he found Isaac Hawkins in a cheerful and joking mood, and the person they were joking about was his wife. Hawkins suggested that Grivel should visit his wife since she was present, but that suggestion quickly turned to a comment from Br. Kuhn that Hawkins's wife was quite large, which descended into an exchange about how many horses Kuhn had had to employ to transport the woman back from Baltimore: "A wagon & 5 horses." This apparently elicited "great laughing of Old Isaac, Miss Kitty & all." Grivel then explained to Lancaster that Kuhn had taken some tobacco to Baltimore and brought Isaac's wife back with him to White Marsh, and that together they were living in new quarters near the spring, but that they would have to move soon since the whole plantation was to be rented out.3

Inevitably, this little slice of family life was connected to the large story of the removal of the enslaved community from the farm. Grivel seemed generally concerned about those who were having their lives upturned. He reported: "Nelly, Old Isaac's daughter was sick, a very sensible woman. Harriet & children are gone, Charles or James her husband will not go & secreted 3 of his children at Baltimore. A distressing story if Fr. W. is right. The others are willing to go."

But by the close of the letter, Grivel had new information that attested to just how complex the family dynamics were in this community. "Nelly & children remain, until Peter her husband shall have been bought from Henry Young who is very willing to do it. Fr Woodley’s tale is false. James Queen is a rascal, & is living with Elizabeth a widow sister of his wife Harriet, who knew it, & refused to remain in W.M. & chose to go with her children."4

As a transformative moment, the 1838 sale offered an opportunity to surface some of the living, breathing, human relationships, full of commitment and betrayal and drama, that mostly existed undocumented in the instruments of accounting and discipline of the documentary record. What can we know about these men, women, and children and their connections to one another? Despite an historical record that is 99.9% created by enslavers, it is possible to develop some knowledge about the kinship and community ties that characterized the enslaved people owned by the Jesuits in Maryland before 1838. Thomas Brown's letter stands as the only direct voice of the enslaved in these archival collections, but it is by no means the only evidence of longstanding partnerships/spousal relationships. Jesuit correspondence and plantation record books are peppered with evidence of the prevalence of longstanding partnerships and multigeneration families. The records are replete with family relationships, and sites of human connection, yet so much is obscured.

Community and Kinship amongst the Enslaved Owned by the SJs

At the end of January 1717, William Hunter, SJ signed a deed of gift seeding all of the property associated with a Britton Neck farm related to Newtown, including 15 enslaved people, to Thomas Jameson, a layperson. The deed was an effort to secure that property, which was under threat of confiscation by the Maryland colonial authorities. Though the document is lasting evidence of the shifting winds of hostility toward Catholic clergy in the colonial period, it also represents the first documentation of an enslaved group owned by the Jesuits. Furthermore, the group consisted of four men, four women, four boys, and three girls. Though they are not clustered into family groupings, the presence of those seven children suggests that there were perhaps some heterosexual partnerships among the listed adults.5

Chronologically, the next record that names enslaved people who are owned by the Jesuits is a list of enslaved children born at Port Tobacco starting around 1750. This list is typical of much of the Jesuits accounting for their enslaved property. It is tucked at the end of George Hunter's record book, and it details the names and dates of birth, and often the names of their parents, for those born at the property. From these individual lines, scrawled in thick, messy ink, unfurl the bones of nearly a dozen enslaved families.6

The presence of these families suggests a growing community at the Port Tobacco farm in the middle of the 18th Century. For decades scholars of slavery have taken up a robust debate over the possibility and extent of community formation among the enslaved in the United States.7 Historians of the Chesapeake region, Allan Kullikoff and Russell Menard foremost, point to exactly this time period as the tipping point where those enslaved in Maryland and Virginia beginning to achieve a critical population density, gender balance, and adjacency that would allow them to develop a separate culture and a moderately stable family lives. Part of this growth of slave culture and community depended on the ability of the enslaved to congregate in larger groups on plantations with groups of more than 20 enslaved persons. Jean Butanhoff Lee, based on her assessment of census and tax records in Charles County where the Port Tobacco farm was located, has argued that Kullikoff and Menard's claims are not true for the whole Chesapeake region until the revolutionary era. However, the population characteristics are present on the majority of Jesuit-owned plantations by 1765.8

In the summer of 1765, George Hunter, who was the Jesuit Superior at the time, composed a summary report for the order's Provincial in Rome that detailed the status of the individual missions, detailing their acreage and enslaved people who labored thereon. Five of the seven plantations that Hunter described were home to 20 or more enslaved people, with White Marsh being the largest community at 65 people. Port Tobacco in Charles County was the second largest with 38 people. Then, St. Inigoe's, Newtown, and Bohemia, all had between 20 and 29 people. Furthermore, those five plantations had an average enslaved population of children or elderly, hence non-laboring individuals, of 46%. Even the two smaller farms, St. Joseph's and St. Marie's, both of which had enslaved populations of 7, included two or three people out of service.9

This numeric account suggests that the groups of enslaved people across the Jesuit plantations found themselves in groups that could develop their own shape and character, based on their size and relative stability. Many individuals lived their entire lives on individual plantations. This trend continued in subsequent decades, resulting in multigeneration families and connections to African descended people in the surrounding areas. Their desire and ability to build meaningful, lasting relationships is also evident in their ongoing willingness to marry, and in their efforts to unite their families through self-purchase. The Jesuits sometimes helped in these efforts based on their commitment to avoiding the separation of married people. Thus, the enslaved people owned collectively by the Maryland Province Jesuits in the 18th and 19th Centuries lived in conditions that allowed them to build communities and kinship ties.

  1. Letter from Thomas Brown (October 21, 1833), MPA, Box 40, Folder 5 Varia re: Slaves [112 B1-P6], 112 B1.
  2. Kelly L. Schmidt, “Thomas and Molly Brown,” Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project, 2020.
  3. Letter from Fidelis Grivel, SJ to Charles Lancaster, SJ (November 6, 1838) MPA, Box 66, Folder 3, 212 M5a.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Deed of Gift between William Hunter, SJ and Thomas Jameson (January 30, 1717), MPA, Box 27, Folder 2.
  6. George Hunter, List of children born at Port Tobacco, Bound Manuscript, MPA Box 3, Folder 8.
  7. The question of the scope and possibility of people developing strong community and kinship bonds, and in turn developing and maintaining a distinctive cultural domain, has been the subject of generations and schools of slavery studies scholars. See, John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, Revised and enlarged edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979); Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925, First edition (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976); George P. Rawick, From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community, The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, v. 1 (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Pub. Co, 1972); Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
  8. Allan Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680-1800, 1 edition (The University of North Carolina Press, 1986), Russell Menard, "The Maryland Slave Population, I658 to I730: A Demographic Profile of Blacks in Four Counties," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Ser., XXXII (I975), 30-38, and Jean Butenhoff Lee, “The Problem of Slave Community in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake,” The William and Mary Quarterly 43, no. 3 (1986): 334–61, While the records from the Jesuit plantation in Charles county undercut Lee's argument, Lee's work is an important reminder that slavery is different in different times and places and that it is not productive to make generalizations that stray too far from the direct documentary record. [Charles County tax records and census documents for St. Thomas's Manor and Port Tobacco -- at the county seat or at the Maryland State Archives?]
  9. George Hunter, SJ to Provincial Fr. Deunett , "Missions in Maryland," (July 23, 1765) MPA Box 57, Folder 1.
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