Slavery & Freedom in Maryland & D.C.

This list is not meant to be comprehensive. I have chosen books that give a picture of African-American life in Maryland and the District of Columbia, both in slavery and in freedom, and sources that may be useful for genealogists.

* * * *

Berlin, Ira and Leslie S. Rowland, eds. Families and Freedom: Documentary History of African-American Kinship in the Civil War Era. NY: The New Press, 1997. The letters and testimony of freed slaves document the transformation of African-American family life. Notes and an ample introduction place the documents in context.

Brackett, Jeffrey R. The Negro in Maryland: A Study of the Institution of Slavery. NY: Negro Universities Press, 1969.

Brown, Letitia Woods. Free Negroes in the District of Columbia, 1790-1846. NY: Oxford University Press, 1972. A microcosm of 19th c. life in the District, drawn from newspapers, court records, family histories, wills, and church documents. Includes a few (white) Magruders, as well as several African-American families associated with them. See my page on the Magruder-Hamilton wills.

Brown, Thomas F. and Leah C. Sims. “‘To Swear Him Free’: Ethnic Memory As Social Capital in Eighteenth-Century Freedom Petitions.” In Debra Meyers & Melanie Perreault’s Colonial Chesapeake: New Perspectives. New York: Lexington Books, 2006. pp 81-105. Details the struggle to obtain or maintain freedom by those descended from both free and enslaved forbears.

Fawver, Kathleen. “The Black Family in the Chesapeake: New Evidence, New Perspectives.” In Debra Meyers & Melanie Perreault’s Colonial Chesapeake: New Perspectives. New York: Lexington Books, 2006. pp 51-80. A demographic analysis of the 1776 census for Harford County, Maryland—which yields surprising insights into African-American families in both freedom and slavery.

Federal Writers’ Project. Maryland Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in Maryland, from Interviews with Former Slaves. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books/Library of Congress, n.d.

Ferguson, Alice L.L. and Henry Ferguson. The Piscataway Indians of Southern Maryland. Acokeek: Alice Furgoson Foundation, 1960. [pamphlet] After the Furgusons discovered that their Maryland home was on the site of a Piscataway village, they devoted their lives to its study and preservation.

Fields, Barbara Jeanne. Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland During the Nineteenth Century. New Haven: Yale UP, 1985. Maryland’s status as “the middle ground” between north and south, freedom and slavery, has long carried with it an image of moderation. As this impressive book demonstrates, the middle ground was also the site of intense struggle, extreme ideas, and high emotion. Highly recommended.

Heinegg, Paul. Free African-Americans of Maryland and Delaware, from the Colonial Period to 1810. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2000. Also available free on line, at A history of free African-American families in the Colonial period—most of whom were descended from white women who had mixed-race children by African or African-American men.

Heinton, Louise. Searching for Ancestors Who Were Slaves: An Index to the Freedom Records of Prince George’s County, Maryland, 1808-1869, typescript prepared by Louise Heinton, 1971, MSA S1411, Index 38. An electronic publication of the Maryland State Archives. Magruders start with Image #59 in the M’s.

Hode, Martha. White Women, Black Men. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997. For the story of Nell Butler’s retort to Lord Baltimore, see page 34.

Maryland State Archives. African Americans in Maryland, Archives of Maryland Historical and Biographical Series. Individual biographical files on a few individuals.

Maryland State Archives. Beneath the Underground: The Flight to Freedom and Communities in Antebellum Maryland ( : accessed 14 March 2021).

Maryland State Archives. A Guide to the History of Slavery in Maryland (Feb 2020). PDF pamphlet.

Maryland State Archives. The Legacy of Slavery in Maryland. Case studies, interactive map, searchable database, & more. ( : accessed 14 March 2021).

Maryland State Archives. Archives of Maryland on Line, Index of Records of the Slavery Commission.

Morgan, Philip D. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. A comparative study black life in the Chesapeake, where African-American culture was oldest, and the newly settled Carolina lowcountry.

Prince, Bryan. A Shadow on the Household: One Enslaved Family’s Incredible Struggle for Freedom. Ontario: McClelland and Stewart, 2009. This is a Maryland-D.C. story about the struggle to free members of the Weems family. It is full of names, anecdotes, legal cases, and newspaper accounts. Also a very good read. Upton Beall, who married into the family that owned the Weems, was a descendant of Alexander Magruder. The early deaths of both Upton and his wife, Jane Robb Beall, were among the events the precipitated the crisis for the Weems family.

Provine, Dorothy, compiler. Registrations of Free Negroes 1806-1863, Prince George’s County, Maryland. Washington, DC: Columbian Harmony Society, 1990. Abstracts of freedom registers, a few with family members named. Includes both black and white Magruders. Very useful and very rare.

Provine, Dorothy, compiler. District of Columbia Free Negro Registers 1821-1861. 2 vols. Heritage Books, 1966. Abstracts of freedom registers, some with physical descriptions, a few with family members named. Index is in the second volume. Includes both black and white Magruders.

Provine, Dorothy, compiler. District of Columbia Indentures of Apprenticeship 1801-1893. Willow Bend Books, 1998. Abstracts of indentures for apprentices, many of whom were people of color. Includes both black and white Magruders.

Ricks, Mary Kay. Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad. NY: William Morrow/Harper Collins, 2007. A narrative of the Underground Railroad’s largest escape attempt, when (in 1848) nearly 80 enslaved Americans attempted to sail from D.C. to Philadelphia on The Pearl. Another DC-Maryland tale, full of detail about free and enslaved blacks in DC in the 19th c., and the whites who helped or opposed them.

Rogers, Helen Hoban. Freedom and Slavery Documents from the District of Columbia. 1792-1822. 3 vols. Abstracts of records in the Recorder of Deeds office, including bills of sale, certificates of freedom, certificates of slavery, emancipations, and manumissions. Includes both black and white Magruders. Available for purchase from the author.

Still, William. The Underground Railroad. Benediction Books, 1999. A wealth of anecdotal information about people who made their way to Still’s house in Philadelphia. Sadly, there is no index. You can download it free from iBooks.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1998. [1853] Published in response to accusations that Stowe made up the stuff in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this book documents the sources, both written and oral, from which she drew her ideas for the novel.

Thomas, William G. III. A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020. For seventy years and five generations, enslaved families of Prince George’s County, MD, filed hundreds of suits for freedom against a powerful group of families allied with the Jesuits, whose Maryland plantation, White Marsh, provides context for the infamous 1838 sale of more than 200 men, women, and children by Georgetown College (now Georgetown University). This deeply researched book examines those law suits in detail, along with the genealogy and history of the principal families–the Butlers, Queens, and Mahoneys. Their stories parallel the situation of Priscilla Gray’s descendants, held in bondage by Magruders for 250 years, so I was familiar with the legal basis and tactical importance of suits brought by descendants of white women who married enslaved black men. I was surprised to learn, however, that slavery itself rested on shaky legal foundations, more easily challenged than you might expect. Also of interest are profiles of the lawyers who represented the enslaved. Who were they (one was Francis Scott Key), and what were their motives? I’m still reading, and may update these notes as I go along.

Wagandt, Charles L. The Mighty Revolution: Negro Emancipation in Maryland, 1862-1864. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1964. Dated, but sometimes useful.

Whitman, T. Stephen. Challenging Slavery in the Chesapeake: Black and White Resistance to Human Bondage, 1775-1865. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 2007.  An excellent history, full of detail. Makes clear how conditions and kinds of resistance varied over time.

Whitman, T. Stephen. The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1997. This book lays out the complications of enslavement for life, term enslavement, and apprenticeship, and the complex ways both enslavers and enslaved used the law to gain what they wanted. Emphasizes how active blacks were in figuring out how to work the system to gain freedom for themselves and family. Everyone should read this book.

Works Project Administration. The Negro in Virginia. Winston-Salem: John F. Blair, 1994. Based on interviews and oral histories, a compilation of tale and folkways. As there is no comparable book for Maryland, this is the closest we can get.

Wright, James M. The Free Negro in Maryland, 1634-1860. NY: Octagon Books, 1971. A bit dated, but still useful.

Windley, Lathan A., compiler. Runaway Slave Advertisements: A Documentary History from the 1730s to 1790. Volume 2: Maryland. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1983. Because they are described in such detail–including, sometimes, their personal interests and abilities–these ads are one of the few places where you can get a feel for the individuality of enslaved men and women. A sad irony. Believe me, you’ll be reading this book for hours.



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