Records & Recollections: Early Black History in Prince George’s County, Maryland (1989)

Rarely does a book stump me, but this one has done it. I have had it on my shelf for months and could only bring myself to read just one or two pages at a time. It is not because the book is a hard read, but because it is so dense and so descriptive that it feels too close to home.

Having spent the better part of the last decade in and out of “PG County,” I still find it hard to believe that the colony of Maryland had been an active player in the transatlantic slave trade since the mid-1600s. The book begins there and then, with the founding of the colony and the first glimpses of imported Africans to the United States. “Between 1690 and 1770, more than 100,000 Africans were enslaved in the state.” The book progresses to talk of the types of forced labor and coercive laws that governed their freedom, as well as the living conditions for free Blacks, many of whom feared re-enslavement and vigilance. Although the African slave trade was outlawed in the state in 1783, the property ownership laws of 1798 considered slaves in the same category as books and furniture. Therefore, even the craftsmen and skilled laborers, among the 1,096 free Blacks in PG County as of 1820, rarely felt “free.”

The Freedman’s Bureau played a large role in the Reconstruction and they helped African-Americans who lived in centers of opposition to emancipation. Particularly, Southern MD was known for harassment and intimidation of Black school children and churchgoers. Furthermore “apprenticeship” of Black youth acted as pseudo-slavery well into the late 1800s. The book offers detailed examples of cases from Bladensburg to Baltimore of African-American efforts to self-advance, by organizing teachers and benevolent associations that paved the way for the Black middle class to thrive in present-day Maryland.

The book includes stories that cross racial boundaries, including that of O. Edward Duffy, an Irishman living in Hyattsville. He leased some of his land to Black reverends who constructed one of the first schools for Black children in the county. And there was Sallie Cadwallader, a White Quaker from Pennsylvania who is remembered as a fierce activist and educator of freedmen. She became deeply invested in Black labor advancement and financial independence, taking it upon herself to negotiate better labor contracts for Freedmen willing to travel to other states for work.

The book goes on in this fashion, taking names and telling stories. While I find this kind of storytelling fascinating, I wished I was physically in PG county to take advantage of seeing what has become of the places and names today. My vague recollections of Upper Marlboro, Oxon Hill, and Piscataway creek do not conjure up memories of historical landmarks, but it seems that within each city in the county there were (and in some instances still are) spaces that transformed Black livelihoods over the last two centuries. Many such sites no longer exist. For example the original Marlboro Colored School was constructed in 1877, but was demolished in 1982. Other sites were repurposed or have since been resold. Books, such as this one, and the narratives of descendants are all that is left to tell these local stories.

I highly encourage D.C. and Maryland residents to pick up this book and prepare to go back in time. Unlike other local history books, this approx. 120 page text doesn’t deliberately try to present history in a neat chronological order. Instead, each chapter starts in the 1700 and 1800s and tells the tale of a person or a family, as it has come to be known through historical documents. Themes around Quaker advocacy, Black entrepreneurship, and freedmen’s land ownership repeat in different sequences, and with varying degrees of relevance. These pillars of progress, no doubt, have touched the lives of Marylanders of all colors who now reside in those lands, often without a second thought to the enslaved Africans, freedmen, and African-American families who came before them.

This book was not a quick read for me, and perhaps rightfully so. The histories here are heavy and recent, which offers space to pause and compare current realities – how far have we really come? I recommend proceeding with patience, this book gets deeply personal and it is the stuff that scavenger hunts are made of. Eventually you’ll get to the end and, while it may not have been easy, you’ll be shocked by how much you’ve learned along the way.