The Possibility of Community

Draft posted: 20210412 | Last updated: 20120417

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.

  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.