Amazing Grace: Deep Histories of Black Freedom in the US

Posted on July 26, 2013


“She’s amazing, to be quite frank”. With that opinion, expressed by an archaeologist working on a site in Maryland’s Talbot County, I can only agree.

Grace Brooks is amazing, and we should know more about her– and her family, friends and neighbors. Now, thanks to new archaeological work, we will.

When she died in 1810, the Easton Republican Star published an obituary:

Yesterday, the 12th instant Grace Brooks of this town, and a native of Talbot county, departed this life, aged perhaps near seventy years, after a tedious and pining decline of some years, which she sustained with all the Heroism and Resignation of a patient Christian, which the members of the society, to which she attached herself are ready to bear witness to – although of sable hue, by her industry and economy, after emancipating herself, her children and grand children, she has left decent property to her descendants. Philis Wheatley and Benjamin Banniker, have left memorials of their talents, that while the page of history continues, will never be obliterated; and so Grace Brooks has left an impression on the hearts of all who knew her many virtues and services, that will never be forgotten while they possess recollection – white and black, are the offspring of the Divine Creator.

Archaeologist Dale Green of Morgan State University sums up the importance of the new project in the Washington Post:

“It’s the oldest free black, African American neighborhood in the country that has been continuously inhabited and still in existence… In 1790, there were 410 free persons of color who lived on what we know as the Hill”.

For many readers in the US, the history of African Americans is the history of slavery and emancipation. That is why projects like the current excavation of “the Hill” are so important: they document the deep history of free people of African descent, whether previously enslaved or not, in the territory of the US.

Today, archaeologists across the country are exploring the remains of towns and farming communities established by free African Americans. They are recalling the histories of wealthy black whalers on Nantucket, and farmers in New Mexico and in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Many of these places date to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Hill is not the earliest known free black settlement in what became the US. That was founded in 1738 under Spanish colonial administration: Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, or Fort Mose, in what today is Florida.

But the community from Fort Mose relocated to Cuba when the Spanish lost Florida to the British in 1763.

The Hill is a neighborhood of free blacks in the early years of the United States that persisted.

Documentary research shows the many ways that African descendants became free citizens in the eighteenth century. Quakers living in Easton in 1766 responded to preaching by John Woolman by freeing enslaved people. Enslaved Africans freed by the will of “Easton sea captain Jeremiah Banning“, who died in 1798, also joined the community

Then there is Grace Brooks “who purchased her freedom and that of her children and grandchildren with money she earned as a midwife”. Her history in Talbot County, and the network of related people who moved near her following her lifetime lease of property in 1792, is discussed by historian Jennifer Hull Dorsey in her 2011 book Hirelings: African American Workers and Free Labor in Early Maryland.

According to a local history blogger, Brooks paid 70 pounds in 1788 for her freedom, and that of her daughter and granddaughter. In 1794 and again in 1797, Brooks used income she earned as a midwife to free first a son, then another granddaughter. As the blog post notes, her obituary (reproduced above) showed how important a member of the community Brooks had become.

The same blogger reproduces in full a will dated 1808 from Brooks, a remarkable document for any woman, white or black, at this early date in the republic. In it, Brooks describes herself as “a free black woman”, and leaves the use of land during her lifetime to “my friend Susan or Suckey Bailey, a black woman”, the proceeds of the sale of her land to be divided equally among her four grandchildren, male and female alike: “Phill, Jane and Nancy, son and daughters of my dear deceased daughter Phobe, and Grace the daughter of my dear deceased son David Brooks”. Brooks specifically directed that if Grace, her granddaughter, were to die before her, her portion of the estate would go to Nancy. Nancy also received her household property, and the responsibility for paying off any debts that might remain.

The current archaeological project is centered on land where the 1790 US census says there were three black residents, whose names are unrecorded. As archaeologist Green said,

“We don’t know if they were women….We don’t know if they were men. We just know they were free and they were black.”

Which is not a small thing to know. In the materials being recovered, we have glimpses of the everyday lives of people that documents don’t provide: “nail stock”, metal used to hand produce potentially marketable tools, oyster shells that evoke images independent people of raising chickens for their own use, or for sale.

As Carlene Phoenix, described in the news coverage as president of Historic Easton, the local nonprofit that encouraged archaeological research, says

“The thing about Talbot County is, it’s rich in history… But when it comes to especially African American history, it was always about slavery. But now we’ve got another story.”

We do indeed. All of us.