History in black, white

Slavery and separation part of local heritage

Slavery and separation part of local heritage

February 03, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Blacks in Washington County share a local history rooted along a less-than-one-quarter-mile stretch in downtown Hagerstown. Jonathan Street has housed, fed, entertained - and sometimes frightened - many of its black residents for more than two centuries.

Jonathan Street is so named only through the black district. The street is mostly white on each end, where it's known as Summit Avenue to the south and Forest Drive to the north. That is a point of contention among those who believe this makes it easy for the city to profile a Jonathan Street address as a black address.

The three predominantly black blocks sandwiched between Summit Avenue and Forest Drive once housed the county jail that held ne'er-do-wells and fugitive slaves waiting to be freed, reclaimed or sold on the nearby auction block. Jonathan Street was a settling place for free blacks in the county and the site of their first churches, city homes and businesses.


Until the 1960s, common practice prevented members of Hagerstown's black community from leaving Jonathan Street.

Black history files at the Washington County Historical Society include a recent comprehensive study of the area called the "Heritage Preservation Project." The study includes census data and historical, social, educational, religious, economic and architectural information about the area's first black community.

The City of Hagerstown in 2002 commissioned the study to help preserve an often overlooked slice of county history, City Planning Director Kathleen Maher said.

Settlers arrive

Local black history most likely dates to the mid-1700s, when European American settlers brought their slaves to Washington County. By 1790, Washington County's nearly 16,000 residents included 64 free blacks and almost 1,300 slaves - half the number of enslaved persons in neighboring Frederick County - while the state's slave population totaled about 103,000, according to the first American census.

Washington County landowner John Barnes in 1790 boasted the highest number of slaves at 75. The county's slave and white populations continued to climb in tandem into the first quarter of the 18th century, peaking at more than 3,200 slaves in 1820, but whites in Washington County still ranked low statewide in slave ownership.

Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties each counted more than 10,000 slaves, according to 1820 census figures.

Only about 11 percent of white Washington Countians could afford to own slaves, according to the "Heritage Preservation Project." The area's large German population tended to avoid slave ownership, and a great number of slaves weren't needed to work on the county's proliferation of small, owner-occupied farms

Quakers and Methodists led anti-slavery movements in Washington County, but the area was far from a safe haven for escaping slaves. The county's border-state location attracted slaves fleeing to the north through neighboring Pennsylvania's many Underground Railroad stops.

Although there are no documented Underground Railroad stops in Washington County, "Big Sam" Williams, a free black who owned a farm on the Potomac River at Four Locks, was known for helping escaping slaves across the waterway in the mid-19th century. (Williams' son, Nathan, and his family farmed Fort Frederick - now a state park - from 1857 to 1911.)

Washington County's roads were patrolled for escaping slaves, and blacks caught without documentation were held at the county jail on Jonathan Street until their status was resolved.

Racial constraints

Racial constraints tightened after a Virginia slave rebellion in 1831. The Maryland General Assembly passed legislation that reduced blacks' access to religion, education and jobs. Black farmers needed special licenses to sell their goods, and free blacks were discouraged from returning to the state, according to information at the Washington County Historical Society.

Maryland even dedicated state funds to return free blacks to Africa. In 1833, 19 free blacks from Frederick and Washington counties were sent to Liberia.

In Hagerstown, blacks were not allowed to gather in such public places as the Market House.

As a gateway to the North, Hagerstown beckoned slave catchers and traders. Slave markets were found in Sharpsburg and Beaver Creek, on Jonathan Street and in front of the courthouse in Hagerstown.

The possibility of being shipped to the South's brutal cotton fields so terrified some local slaves they mutilated themselves to discourage buyers. The fear of going south prompted a slave woman owned by Susan Gray of Boonsboro to cut off her left hand with an ax in 1906, according to historical documents.

Two black churches were established on and near Jonathan Street - Asbury United Methodist Church in 1818 and Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal in 1838 - as free blacks continued to settle in the area. The county's black population of about 4,130 included more than 1,500 freedmen by 1840, according to census data.

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