Critical Summaries of Existing Literature

Loren Schweninger “Freedom Suits, African American Women, and the Genealogy of Slavery” William and Mary Quarterly, Volume 71, Number 1 (January 2014), pp. 35-62

African American women have been instrumental to the process of preserving and passing down the history of this particular group. Their memories and contributions provided many subjugated men and women with a fighting chance to gain their freedom. This was particularly true of those who had white ancestry and had evidence (usually the testimony of others) to demonstrate it in the courts. In fact, during the 18th century in the Northern part of the nation, in the midst of slavery and the relentless tyranny of its proponents, these testimonies encouraged hundreds of African American men and women to file lawsuits against their masters in their pursuit of freedom.

Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Dr. Loren Schweninger, explores and expands on these facts in the article “Freedom Suits, African American Women, and the Genealogy of Slavery.” In it, she describes in detail the process by which many enslaved people relied primarily on oral history as a way to seek and, in some cases, successfully achieve their freedom. The author uses as the primary focus the enslaved descendants of Maria, a Spanish or Portuguese woman (her actual place of origin is still unknown) who was brought to Maryland and sold into slavery in 1686. Despite being a white woman, Maria worked as an indentured slave in the small farm of Robert Lockwood near Anne Arundel County. In the decades that followed, the different individuals who were directly related to Maria –described by the author as the Boston family, were passed down and resold as slaves despite their white ancestry. However, starting in 1795, many of them were successfully freed by Maryland courts after they filed lawsuits and presented testimony from twenty-four witnesses. In fact, the oral testimony of free and enslaved African Americans who acknowledged Maria’s white ancestry (as the story was passed down by their relatives and neighbors) were pivotal for the few members of the Boston family that achieved their freedom. It is important to highlight, however, that the author makes special emphasis on the oral depositions of Anne Brown. This is because she was the daughter of Mary Brown, an African American woman who knew Maria when she was alive and who was responsible to pass that information down to her relatives.

Although the main focus of Dr. Schweninger is the Boston family and Maria herself, throughout the article she also presents examples of other similar cases. She reveals that several biracial individuals who were held in bondage and who claimed that their white relatives entered into a willing relationship with a male or female slave filed numerous lawsuits against their white subjugators. In addition, Dr. Schweninger also discusses how and to what extent the Maryland court system allowed (at least temporarily) enslaved people to use the same legal resources that were generally for white people only. As a result, the court’s decision to allow the different plaintiffs to use hearsay (be it from free or enslaved blacks or white people) “reveals a legal system that was more egalitarian at that moment than it would be for generations to come” (p. 41). As a whole by examining freedom suits, this article provides scholars and students alike with a succinct analysis of some of the legal maneuvers that many African American relied on to seek their freedom. But more importantly, as indicated by the author, these “Freedom suits reveal cultural interactions among slaves, free blacks, and whites; the power that court actions could give to those held in bondage; and the role of African American women in maintaining family histories and sustaining oral traditions” (p. 37). Moreover, considering that Anne Brown and several other slaves who helped in the lawsuits resided near Anne Arundel County in a section of Maryland that is also known as the Swamp, both the Swamp and Brown are worth examining even further. In fact, for the purpose of our project, there is a possibility that their stories could provide us with relevant information regarding the preservation of oral history among enslaved people in the state of Maryland.

Stanley Harrold “On the Borders of Slavery and Race:  Charles T. Torrey and the Underground Railroad” Journal of the Early Republic, Volume 20, Number 2 (Summer, 2000), pp. 273-292.

Professor of History at South Carolina University and author Dr. Stanley Harrold discusses the contributions made by white abolitionists in the Underground Railroad movement. Specifically, he examines the involvement of Charles T. Torrey and the circumstances that led him to become interested in helping the slave communities of the south, including those in Maryland. In addition, the author addresses some of the discrepancies that have existed among historians “concerning the involvement of white abolitionists…the extension of their activities in the South, and the relationship of the antislavery movement to the sectional conflict” (p. 275). But ultimately he makes the overall argument that Torrey’s participation in this movement is in fact what contributed to “his arrest on charges of helping slaves escape, his imprisonment in the Maryland Penitentiary, and his death there in 1846” (p. 274). From this perspective, the author argues against traditional historical views about the involvement of white abolitionists in the movement. Instead, his article suggests that the Underground Railroad movement benefited significantly from the participation of white abolitionists such as Charles T. Torrey who despite the many issues they faced at the time, they were able to break-down racial barriers and promote interracial organizations.

In addition to analyzing the involvement of Charles T. Torrey, the author also aims to dispel the notion that this movement needs to be examined from a compartmentalized perspective as other historians have done it. That is, he suggests that despite the myriad of articles proposing otherwise, there is enough evidence to indicate that both African Americans and whites worked together in this influential movement on different levels. In order to validate this claim the author uses the relationship between Torrey and Thomas Smallwood as an example. – Thomas Smallwood was an African American man who despite having been born into slavery in Prince George’s County, he was later emancipated. Soon after, he became increasingly committed to help other African Americans to achieve freedom all while being part of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church of Washington. – The two men met near Washington D.C. years after Smallwood was freed and both “created what Smallwood called ‘our new underground railroad’” (p. 283). The relationship between the two suggests that both men shared many similarities and qualities. In fact, as the author hints about it, these similarities are what turned the movement into a biracial effort and created a strong alliance between members of the two groups. Considering that Dr. Stanley Harrold focuses primarily on this relationship to defend his argument, it would be helpful for the purpose of out project to further investigate other aspects of Charles T. Torrey contributions. As it is, the article seems to suggest that there is significant evidence to propose that white abolitionists did more than just harbor those who were fleeing slavery. In that sense, it might be useful to determine how many people and to what extent Charles T. Torrey help others in the state of Maryland.

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