Ancestor's story of slavery and freedom comes to life

February 11, 2012|By JULIE E. GREENE |
  • Fanny Crawford of Hagerstown holds a manuscript written by her great grandfather Thomas Henry Barnes. Fanny considers it a gift to have this piece of family history.
By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer

Sitting on her knees atop a quilt her father bought at a flea market, Fanny Crawford listened to him tell her a bedtime story.

On occasion, like this time, the bedtime stories Bill Crawford told his 5-year-old daughter were true family stories.

It was the story of her great-great-grandfather, Henry Barnes, who was born into slavery near Richmond, Va., circa 1818, and as a child was taken away from his family and sold to a Hagerstown man.

The woman Henry remembered as his mother gave him a quilt to remember where he came from, said Crawford, 61, who lives in Hagerstown’s North End.

Crawford said as a child, she would lie in bed sometimes running her hands across her own quilt as she thought of Henry and what it must have felt like for him to be torn away from his family.

Henry later adopted the name of his owner and was freed in dramatic fashion, according to family history.

“That was quite a story to hear as a 5-year-old. And it really helped me to understand that there were a lot of people who came before me, who, to whom I mattered. People who would have wanted me to succeed,” Crawford said.

Crawford shared Henry’s story during a Feb. 5 black history tribute hosted by the Contemporary School of the Arts & Gallery at the Review and Herald Publishing Association’s auditorium south of Hagerstown.

Henry Barnes’ story is included in a family manuscript, which is an autobiography written by Crawford’s great-grandfather, Thomas Henry “T.H.” Barnes, the son of Henry Barnes, Crawford said.

The manuscript has been a great gift, Crawford said. Sharing Henry’s story helps her remember her roots, she said.

Years in slavery

According to the family story, a man named Barnes — first name unknown, but who liked to be called Reverend Barnes — purchased Henry and loaded him and several other slaves into a wagon for the trip to Hagerstown, Crawford said.

Barnes bought young black men and boys, training them in a trade and — contrary to the laws of Maryland at the time — taught them to read, write and do basic arithmetic, Crawford said.

Henry was trained to be a seed man and landscape gardener, Crawford said.

Barnes would contract his slave labor out to neighbors. Because he’d educated his slaves, they could record their hours and type of work to report back to Barnes, Crawford said.

One night in 1835, with his health quickly declining, Barnes called in his 19 slaves to secretly confer with them, according to the manuscript.

He gave them each their free papers and $200, and told them to leave for Canada immediately, heading north through Pennsylvania and New York, Crawford said.

Barnes realized that by the next morning, his heirs would realize what he had done, declare him insane, contest the will and send a posse after the slaves, she said.

At Barnes’ request, the slaves agreed to take his surname, Crawford said.

Escape to Pennsylvania

Henry and another slave, Jerry, were in Lewistown, Pa., when a posse of constables, slave hunters and Barnes’ heirs arrived in town, Crawford said.

According to family history, Lewistown was a station on the Underground Railroad. Sympathizers in town hid Henry under a barn and Jerry in a well until the posse left, Crawford said.

When the townsfolk realized Henry and Jerry were educated, skilled tradesmen, they invited them to settle in the Lewistown area and provided them safety, Crawford said. Crawford said it was her understanding that many of the townspeople at the time wouldn’t have known how to read and write.

Crawford said she’s had a difficult time finding documentation concerning Henry’s escape, but T.H. Henry said his father didn’t feel like a free man or feel safe. There are no family pictures of Henry because he wouldn’t allow his picture to be taken, she said.

Crawford did find a copy of the 1840 Census for Lewistown, Pa., that listed a Henry Barnes who had married a Jane Williams.

“I remember being worried about Henry, and the fact that his mother gave him a quilt was such a great comfort to me,” Crawford said.

The quilt would remind Henry that his mother loved him, Crawford said. Crawford does not know how old Henry was when he was sold to Barnes in Virginia, but speculated he was 12 or 13 at the time. Any younger and he probably would have been too much of a burden to Barnes, she said.

Henry Barnes died in 1857 with his wife, Jane, dying two years later, Crawford said.

The couple’s two surviving children, Thomas Henry and Peter, were cared for by Jane Williams’ brother, Peter Williams, who lived in Brooklyn. While Peter Williams’ daughters were light-skinned enough to attend a school for white children in Brooklyn, the boys were dark-skinned and could not attend the same school, Crawford said.

Education was important to the Williams’ family, so Peter Williams sent the boys to live at the New York Colored Orphan Asylum in Manhattan, N.Y., where they could receive a good education, Crawford said.

The boys arrived at the orphanage in 1859, Crawford said. In 1861, at the start of the Civil War, an angry mob burned down the orphanage in what is known as the draft riots, Crawford said.

‘Part of a larger community’

Many years later, at a reunion of the orphans, T.H. Barnes was asked to write his autobiography, Crawford said. That autobiography became the manuscript. Kept in a brown folder, it consists of loose ledger sheets bearing T.H.’s handwriting. The first few pages tell the story of Henry being sold near Richmond and later escaping and becoming a free man.

T.H. Barnes had three children who survived to adulthood, including one daughter named Mabel Cinderella. Mabel had eight children, including Bill Crawford, father of Fanny Crawford.

“I didn’t know my grandparents on my father’s side. As a child, they were gone by then,” Fanny Crawford said.

“But I knew who they were. I knew what they would have expected of me. I knew that education was important to them,” said Crawford, who is executive director of APPLES for Children, which stands for the Alliance for Parent Provider and Local Employer Solutions for Children. She also knew the Barneses cared for children and the struggles they had growing up.

“It just made me feel a part of a larger community, a part of a people who cared about each other,” Crawford said of her family history.

“And that’s why I always say that children need to know where they come from. I think it really helps children to be grounded and to have a sense that they’re not alone in the world.”

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