Book launch! The Ties That Bind: From Slavery to Freedom

I am thrilled to announce publication of James Bacon’s The Ties That Bind: From Slavery to Freedom–a book long in the making, shaped with skill, determination, and love.

In 1857, William Bowie, an enslaved man and skilled carpenter, was manumitted by the will of Roderick M. McGregor, of Prince George’s County, Maryland. Roderick’s birth name was Magruder, but in 1820 his father, John Smith Magruder, petitioned the state legislature to change the surname of his children to McGregor. Because Maryland law, by that time, forbade the manumission of slaves, Roderick’s will instructed his executor (his brother Nathaniel M. McGregor) to take William Bowie, his wife Matilda, and four of their children–Thomas, Nathaniel, Margaret, and Boston–to Washington DC, where they were to be hired out to work for a year, thereafter to have their freedom, a house, and a horse and cart. Once that was done, William Bowie received in cash the balance of the $500 Roderick McGregor had allotted to his welfare.

At that time, all members of the Bowie family were illiterate and had lived their entire lives in slavery. In 1913, just fifty-five years later, William A. Bowie, eldest son of Nathaniel Bowie, co-founded with John W. Lewis the Industrial Savings Bank, the most sound and successful black-owned bank in Washington, D.C.

And that is only one of the remarkable stories told in this book. From the Bowie family come tales of flight and capture, separation and reunion, Civil War service and multiple aliases, successful businesses and long marriages. On the other side of his family, James Bacon is descended from some of New Jersey’s earliest black property-owners, and important conductors on the Underground Railroad.

I have corresponded with James Bacon almost from the inception of this web site, and know him to be a dogged and thorough researcher. As you read this book, remember that behind every paragraph lie years of searching and careful recording; of corroboration and double-checking; of searching for graves and for documents; of squinting through miles of microfilm, then embracing the dazzling new world of online genealogy. Thanks to such efforts, The Ties That Bind: From Slavery to Freedom is, in itself, a reunion of the lost and the loved.

Just one footnote, for readers of the American Clan Gregor Society yearbooks… You may have read in an early article by C.C. Magruder, about the descendants of John Magruder of Dunblane (a grandson of Alexander Magruder the Immigrant, and Roderick McGregor’s great-grandfather), that Roderick freed all his slaves. This is far from true. He freed only William and Matilda Bowie, along with four of their children. Also to his credit, he had earlier purchased Matilda from a distant Maryland plantation in order to reunite her with William. However, the rest of the Bowie family, along with many others, remained in bondage, and an unusually large number of enslaved men are known to have run away from Roderick’s Prince George’s County plantations over the years. When recaptured, some of those men were sold, as were (apparently) several women or girls for whom there is no record of running away. These included two sisters in the Bowie family, who were not reunited with their siblings, nor with each other, for upwards of sixty years.

So while we celebrate the rise of the Bowies and other families, and while we give thanks for moments of conscience or expedience that led to the isolated acts of manumission that helped them on their way, let’s not forget the wider context of enslavement: an economic system entirely dependent on the institutionalization and social acceptance of crimes against humanity.

On this site, you can read about William & Matilda Bowie, Runaways from Roderick McGregor, Interrelations among these families, as well as the wills and estate inventories of Roderick McGregor and his father, John Smith Magruder. All these pages will be updated, as time allows, in response to publication of The Ties That Bind.

The Ties That Bind: From Slavery to Freedom is available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions. Buy it! Read it! 

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