A Maryland attic hid a priceless trove of Black history
Historians and activists saved it from auction.
by Michael Ruane for The Washington Post
The 200-year-old document was torn and wrinkled. It had stains here and there. And it was sitting on a plastic table in the storeroom of an auction house near the Chester River hamlet of Crumpton, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Historian Adam Goodheart had seen it before, but only in a blurry website photo. Now, here it was in a simple framed box — a wanted poster for “A Negro Man named Amos” who had fled from his enslaver in Queen Anne’s County.
It was chilling. There, on cheap rag paper, was the story of American slavery. Amos was “a smart fellow,” about 20, who might be headed for his mother in Philadelphia. But in 1793 he was the property of one William Price, who wanted him caught.
The poster, or “broadside,” was one of hundreds of rare documents discovered earlier this year in the attic of an old house on the Eastern Shore and saved from the auction block by a group of Washington College historians and local Black activists.
And the reward poster turned out to be one of the oldest known, said Goodheart, director of the college’s Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience in Chestertown, Md., where the documents are now housed.
“These broadsides weren’t designed to be saved,” Goodheart said. “They were designed to be tacked up on the wall or passed out from hand to hand … and the vast majority of those were simply discarded or disappeared over the years.”
“When I really realized what it was and that it was genuine, and how [old] it was,” he said, “there really was kind of a … moment of, ‘Wow, I’m holding something really priceless in my hands.’”
“There really aren’t any documents like this known to exist from before 1791,” he said. “And ours is one of just a tiny handful anywhere that exists from the 1700s, perhaps fewer than 10.”
“The first time I picked it up, it felt incredibly chilling,” he said.
Amos had escaped on May 29, 1792.
The poster, which was updated in 1793, described him in detail. He was slender, about 5-foot-10 and had scars near both eyes. He was a wearing a shirt and trousers of coarse cloth, a “tolerable good” felt hat, and shoes with buckles.
If recaptured in Philadelphia, he “will plead his freedom from living there,” the poster said. Slavery had technically been abolished in Pennsylvania in 1780. But Price no doubt knew there were plenty of catchers who might ignore such details.
“Whoever takes up said negro and brings him home … or confines him in any [jail] so that the owner may have him again” shall receive a reward of $30, plus “reasonable charges,” the poster said.
Other striking items emerged from the attic:
· A fragile, handwritten reward notice about a “small negro woman” named Binah who escaped with her 15-month-old daughter from their enslaver near Sudlersville in 1812. They were believed to have headed for Binah’s husband, Abe, who was enslaved across the river in Kent County.
· An 1800 document recording the purchase of an enslaved man, Cato Daws, by a free Black man named Congo Mango, to give him his freedom. Mango, or Mander, as he was later known, was a native of Africa who had been enslaved in Maryland.
· A handwritten receipt from Queen Anne’s County dated April 13, 1789, recording the sale of an enslaved girl named Bet. The receipt said that she was “about thirteen years of age.” Her purchaser had paid 40 pounds for her. Her previous “owner” reported that she had been duly “sold & delivered by me.”
· And a handwritten 1822 document listing a guardian’s expenditures and income for the care of a White girl, Mary Clannahan, who had inherited land and enslaved people from her grandfather.
Money had been spent on shoes, cloth, writing paper, an English “reader” and school tuition.
Income to Mary had been generated by the hiring out of her enslaved people: Henney, Sophy and a boy named Benjamin.
In all, there were about 2,000 pages of documents, at least 100 of them relating directly to Black history, Goodheart said. “We bought every manuscript in the auction,” he said.
Many were unveiled during a community event June 10 at Sumner Hall, a historic meeting house built by Black Civil War veterans in Chestertown in 1908.
As she examined the papers, Carolyn Brooks, a local historian with the Starr Center, marveled at the resilience the enslaved displayed. “God puts the right people in the right places for the right times,” she said.
Airlee Ringgold Johnson, a community historian with the Chesapeake Heartland African American humanities project, was with Goodheart when they first saw the documents in person in April. Her family has deep roots in the area. It was “inspiring,” she said. “It was coming to grips with your own history. Because it was right in our area. … This is our history. You can take ownership of it. We all have a story. We’re finally finding out, getting more information about our story.”
But the acquisition of the material by the college and Sumner Hall wasn’t a given.
The documents were discovered earlier this year in a 200-year-old Georgian house named Ripley in Queen Anne’s County before its demolition, Goodheart said.
It was not clear how the papers wound up at the house, nor why they were preserved, although many appeared to be business, official or legal records.
“These families were businesses,” he said. “It was all inextricably bound up — the land, the family, the business and the enslaved people. This was stuff they had to keep records of.”
After this article published, the owner of Ripley, Nancy Bordely Lane, reached out to say she was happy that the material had been saved. “I love it,” she said. “History should be acknowledged.”
She said the house dated back to 1803 and the property dated back to an old colonial grant in 1667. “Since 1667 it has not been out of the family,” she said in a telephone interview.
She said her late father told her that the farm once had 500 enslaved people.
She said she grew up in the house and “loved it.” But part of the foundation was crumbling. “I really didn’t have a choice, she said. “I couldn’t fix it.”
The documents were in a plastic trash bag that was found in the attic by a friend who was helping to clean out the house. He thought they might be of value. She said she was unaware of the contents and did not know how they got there.
The documents were put online for auction by Dixon’s Crumpton Auction, about 10 miles east of Chestertown. The auction house is a local institution in a huge barnlike building where everything from antiques to bear traps can be available.
The papers were delivered to the auction house piled in waxed seafood boxes, said John Chaski, an antique-manuscript expert who sorted them there.
The items were soon spotted by members of the African American community who were upset that they might be sold out of the area. They contacted Goodheart and asked for his help in keeping them local.
“We thought the documents would have went who knows where,” said Doncella Wilson, a Sumner Hall board member who was among the first to hear of the auction. “Across the country, across the world, we don’t know where.”
In addition, it was galling to the Black community that their enslaved ancestors’ history was being sold on the auction block, just as their ancestors had been sold.
“People still getting rich off us,” Brooks said.
Goodheart said that “the documents have a kind of a sacred power.”
He got permission to examine the papers at the auction house and asked the sellers for a price for the whole collection. They came back with an amount “in five figures” that he thought was reasonable, he said.
He then began the task of raising money. As he sought out donors, Black friends urged him to tap African American and White donors.
“Don’t just raise money from White people,” he said they told him. “Ask Black people to contribute. … This shouldn’t be about White people paying White people for Black history. Because if it is, we won’t really feel like it’s really ours.”
He said he turned to Black Washington College alumnus and trustee Norris Commodore and his wife, Terry, who gave a substantial portion of the price. The collection was named for them.
Goodheart said as soon as the collection is catalogued it will be available to researchers, and much of it can viewed online.
As for the formerly enslaved Amos, William Price continued to search for him.
In 1793, a year after the first wanted poster was issued, Price updated it. In handwritten additions, he increased the reward from $30 to $60. (The college has the 1793 version.)
And in 1794, two and a half years after Amos fled, the dogged Price placed an ad in a Philadelphia newspaper, repeating the offer of a $60 reward for his capture.
“As he has been gone for some length time,” Price noted that Amos had probably grown to 6 feet tall.
No further details have been found about Amos, Goodheart said.
“We don’t know if he lived and died the rest of his life as a free man,” he said. “But we do know that at least for a time he succeeded in gaining his freedom.”