Author Q&A: James H. Johnston (Part 2)

  • July 17, 2012

The second of a two-part Q&A with the author of From Slave Ship to Harvard.

This is the second part of a two-part Q&A with James H. Johnston, the author of From Slave Ship to Harvard. The first part is here.

From Slave Ship to Harvard
is the true story of an
African American family in Maryland over six generations.  The author has reconstructed a unique narrative of black struggle and achievement from paintings, photographs, books, diaries, court records, legal documents,  and oral histories.

Yarrow Mamout, the first of the family in America, was an educated Muslim from Guinea.  He was brought to Maryland on the slave ship Elijah and gained his freedom forty-four years later.  By then, he had become so well known in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., that he attracted the attention of the eminent American portrait painter Charles Willson Peale.  Just as Peale painted the portrait of Yarrow, James H.  Johnston’s new book puts a face on slavery and paints the history of race in Maryland.

When the state of Maryland voted to pass the laws against manumission, making slaves subject to slavery forever, many family members rushed to beat the law and purchase their relatives. What would be the reason for them to have the money yet hold off on making the purchase? Arthur Sands paid $615 for his family in 1860 when the state of Maryland outlawed manumission. Why had he waited? Or alternatively, how in the world did he earn so much money so quickly?

Many black families in Washington County at least had been living as free people without filing manumissions. (See page 253 note 17, where a member of the American Colonization Society was complaining about this early on. The footnote doesn’t give a specific date, but as I recall, the comment was made circa 1835). The reason blacks weren’t filing manumissions was that it cost money or, alternatively, they had just been told to go free and they had nothing to file. The economics of slavery in Maryland were withering away. Farmers couldn’t afford to feed their slaves and yet they couldn’t bear to sell them to the Georgia-men. In Arthur Sands’ case, I think he was living with his family as free people, so why should he spend $615 to make it formal?  But once things exploded after John Brown’s hanging, he could no longer take the risk that manumission was just a technicality. And I don’t think he earned the money quickly. My guess is that he had been free economically for years, raising crops or perhaps being a collier, and socking away his savings. As I say in the book, I think Yarrow did the same thing.

Mary Turner lived as a free black woman who did not record her manumission in any of the nearby counties where she lived. There must have been an enormous distrust at the time, and recording manumission must have been like taking part in the census, whites would know exactly where they were and could freely come and take them and not for decent purposes. They couldn’t trust the state to protect them and yet they used and cooperated with the state. Anonymity must have afforded a measure of safety. What would make these folks give up their feelings of safety for manumission?

It was just the opposite, I think. A black family couldn’t really stay under the radar in these rural areas. The Georgia-men were all around. They knew where the black families lived. If you had the money, you filed a manumission so you could prove you were free. If the Georgia-men took you to Virginia, you could always demand that Virginia authorities contact the recorder of deeds in Maryland and in a couple of weeks you would be freed. Otherwise, you’d have to hope that some white person would travel to Virginia and swear you were free. A friend of mine wrote an article several years ago about a young black girl who was picked up by authorities in Washington, D.C., in the 1840s. Since she had no papers and no one to claim her, she was to be sold in a slave auction. Fortunately for her, her owner in rural Maryland, though ill, traveled to Washington to testify on her behalf. Apparently many blacks chose to save money and not record their manumission or perhaps they weren’t officially manumitted. Slaves freed upon the death of their owner were not automatically given papers. That’s what my research suggested. Substantial men like the Bealls and Clagetts took care to file manumissions when they freed slaves. I doubt that less affluent men did.

After all, there was a thing called the American Colonization Society trying to send free blacks back to Africa, persuading them, even if they did not want to go. The white colonialists were worried about being outnumbered. Did this organization actually force some free blacks to Africa? How many were returned? Were they all returned to Liberia?

I didn’t look at the numbers, but I’m under the impression they were not large. Again, I’d refer you to the citation of page 253 note 17 and the book Maryland in Africa, which is devoted entirely to this subject. As I recall, Penelope Campbell found that only one or two boatloads of free slaves from Maryland went to Africa. Bear in mind that to free blacks, this wasn’t going “back” to Africa. They were second, third or fourth generation Americans, who had no attachment to Africa. And if they had an opinion about the place, it probably wasn’t favorable.

Did the American Colonization Society make any attempts to return the slaves from where they had come in the first place?

As I say in the previous answer, most blacks in Maryland were several generations removed from the slave ships. They had no idea where their ancestors came from. Professor Gates at Harvard is using DNA to bridge this gap for blacks today because few, if any, families have oral traditions going back to Africa.

In 1831, Nat Turner in Southampton County Virginia with 70 slaves and free blacks killed 55 white folks. After Nat Turner, legislatures enacted and tightened the black codes. In the notes to Chapter 10, you tell the story of Nat Turner’s father running away, being captured and resold 200 miles away. You go on to say that he began a new family, giving Nat Turner a half-brother, and that he told his new young son about the old one, Nat Turner. But then you say that this part of the story probably isn’t true. Why are you willing to speculate in some instances and not in others (see question below)? Many black families know much more about their ancestors simply because of word of mouth, an accepted form of history and truth for them, sometimes the only form of history.

I may not have been clear. The things I said about Nat Turner’s family were hypothetical. I said they would have to be true in order for the family story to be correct. The only known fact is that Nat Turner’s father escaped the plantation when Nat was very young and was never seen again.  Hence, this is no historical record of Nat having a brother or half-brother in Maryland. The Turners today have no facts to support their tale. It’s merely a legend that they are related to Nat. Some believe it, others don’t. In fact, some of them say they heard the story from one of their siblings.They don’t remember their mother or grandmother telling it to them. They say it’s not a family story at all. They do agree that Robert Turner Ford, the Harvard graduate, said it was poppycock. There is a story in my family that we are descended from Confederate General Joseph Johnston. I was even given his crimson sash. There are two problems with the family story. The first is that General Johnston was childless. The second is that biographers have traced his entire line, including collateral relatives in America, and none of them are in my ancestry. My sister thinks our great-great-grandfather went to the 1880 reunion of the Grand Army of the Republic (Yankees). Though a Confederate, Johnston was invited and attended. So my sister believes that our Yankee ancestor wanted to be related to some general and so picked General Johnston even though a Confederate and in his decline. The old man was, according to her logic, flattered, believed there was a connection and gave my ancestor his sash.

Nancy Hillman filed manumission papers based on the testimony of a white attorney who couldn’t have possibly known that she was free simply because her mother was free, yet did. Again, based on speculation, she claimed to be Yarrow’s niece because her mother, Free Hannah, was Yarrow’s sister, which was never conclusively proven. Nancy Hillman then filed a lawsuit and sued to gain money owed to Yarrow Mamout, but only after she had another white lawyer sworn in as the administrator of Yarrow’s estate.  They split the money. Please put $170.86 in today’s money! Surely, this sounds like an early incident of the two races coming together for the purpose of grifting? Is it more remarkable because a black woman was able to bring a lawsuit at this time in American history or because all of the improbable events that led up to it?

As a preliminary matter, I avoided trying to convert money from those times into today’s money.  It’s just too speculative I do know that the going wage in Yarrow’s time, circa 1810, was about $1 per day for a laborer. So that’s about $220 per year. So if you say a laborer today earns $70,000, then you have some feel for what $170 was.  And I also have Warden’s calculation showing that a year’s food supply for a slave cost about $35. Many people today spend much more than that on a single meal at a restaurant. Nancy didn’t split the money with the lawyer that brought the suit. I don’t know how much he was paid. When she died, she left the $300 trust fund to two different lawyers. So I don’t think there was grifting. In fact, trying to sue on a loan that has been unpaid for 20 years would be difficult today without regard to the racial issue. My guess is that the lawyer took the case as a favor to someone. Given the odds against her, I think it was remarkable that Nancy Hillman won. There is a doctrine in the law called “laches,” which is a way to extinguish old claims in the absence of a statute of limitations. The catchy way of remembering what it means is to say “you can’t sit on your laches.” The Yarrows and Hillmans had sat on their laches for 20 years. They shouldn’t have won because of that alone. And Josiah Henson was probably correct: Black people had almost no chance of winning in court in those days.

Five hundred escaped slaves had taken refuge in Harpers Ferry believing the Union Army would protect them; 10,000 Union soldiers surrendered and the Confederate commanders ordered their men to round up the slaves and march them back to their owners. Was there a name for this incident?  Is it a little known story? Were there several other incidents when blacks were captured fighting alongside Union soldiers and marched back into slavery? Even when they were free men?

There is no name for the incident. In fact, there are few references to it. My citation is to research by the National Park Service at Harpers Ferry. It is, indeed, a little-known story.  Those who write about Antietam tend to focus on the battle there, not on the preliminaries, and even if they do, they only write about the fighting. As an aside, that’s one of the things I try to do with the book: write history from the perspective of both blacks and whites. If you were one of the 500 black people marched back to slavery in Virginia, you wouldn’t have cared less who won at Antietam. And I probably should have mentioned that many of the 10,000 Union soldiers captured in the surrender were marched off to Andersonville prison in Georgia and died there. It was a disgraceful episode in military history for many reasons.

Later in the book, I write about the Battle of the Crater, where Simon Turner was wounded.  There, the Confederates seemed to single out the black troopers and kill them rather than take them prisoner. I think this, and the possibility that captured black soldiers would be sold as slaves, was one reason Union commanders were reluctant to commit black troops in major battles.

There is a passage when you mention that the Supreme Court member who wrote the decision later claims that it was not his opinion but he went along with it.

That is a reference to Chief Justice Taney, who wrote the opinion in Dred Scott. Folks in Frederick, Md. even today argue that Taney wasn’t a racist. In fact, they say, he freed his own slaves. Of course, he did that after he was nominated to the Supreme Court and so may have worried about a confirmation fight over owning slaves. But in any event, the language of his opinion is very “lawyerly” in the worst sense of the word. He says all these terrible things about blacks in his opinion, but is always careful to put the blame for what he says on other people. That is, he does say that it is his opinion that blacks are inferior. He says that’s what the Founders thought. There are two problems with what he says. First, it isn’t true. Both at the convention to declare independence in 1776 and later at the constitutional convention, a majority of the delegates wanted to abolish slavery, but they felt they had to compromise to get Southern support. Taney’s is a very distorted view of constitutional history. Second, even if it were true that the Founders were all racist, what bearing did that have in 1857? It would be the same as Chief Justice Earl Warren in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education saying that separate but equal schools were constitutional because they were created at the same time that the 14th Amendment was passed; hence, the 14th Amendment couldn’t possibly be interpreted to require integration. In hindsight, I wish that I had drawn a parallel in the book between Taney and Harvard president Albert Lawrence Lowell. Both men espoused racist views but tried to excuse their own actions by blaming others.

I want this book: Politics & Prose OR

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