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Former slave's grave unfolds mystery at St. Philip's [History Matters]

Laurel Leader

Behind St. Philip's Episcopal Church on the corner of Main and Sixth streets is a small cemetery with a big mystery. Headstones bear the names of some longtime, historical Laurel families: Snowden, Stanley, Talbott, Cronmiller, Dodge, Vanduesen and Haslup. At the far end, next to Prince George Street, it also contains the gravesite of a former slave, Mary Ann Simmes, who died in 1887, the only such grave at St. Philip's. Who was the woman and why is she buried there?

Two St. Philip's parishioners, Betsy Welsh and Mickey Evans, have worked to unfold the mystery of this grave.

The original headstone, which is still there, is so weathered that it is hard to read. A new stone monument, which was dedicated in November 2016, has a brass plaque that reads: "This place marks the final resting place of Mary A. Simmes. Her original headstone reads: In Memory of Mary Ann Simmes. Our Dear Old Mammy, by Those She Loved. Died August 21, 1887 in the 86th Year of Her Age"

According to information Evans wrote in the program for the dedication, Mary Ann Simmes "was possibly the first African American woman buried at St. Philip's at a time when interracial burials were uncommon. Little is known about her; she was a free person prior to emancipation in Maryland and at the time of her passing, she worked for Barnes Compton, who served the citizens of Maryland in many capacities, including state Senator and treasurer. … At one point, he was also the second largest slave owner in the state."

Although genealogical records of slaves are notoriously incomplete or, in many cases, non-existent, Evans' research turned up a few details about Simmes.

While Evans found no record of her in any census before 1860, she was likely born into slavery. A "Mary A. Simms" is included on an 1850 slave schedule for St. Mary's County. Since the 1860 census was for "Free Inhabitants" and she was listed in the household of Sally Wallace, a 31-year-old black farm hand in Anne Arundel County, it seems she was free by then. "Simms" was listed as black, age 50, a farm hand, and born in Maryland.

How she gained her freedom is unknown, but she went to work for Compton as a free person sometime between 1860 and 1870. In the 1870 census, Evans found her listed in Compton's household as mulatto, age 60, a domestic servant who was born in Maryland. Typical of the handwritten records, the 1880 census adds further confusion by listing her still in the Compton household, but as black, age 77, a cook, single and born in Virginia. She continued to work in the Compton household until her death and internment at St. Philip's in 1887.

After the Civil War, St. Philip's had a history of reaching out to Laurel's black community within the confines of a segregated society, according to a parish history published in 2001 and written by parishioner Sally Mitchell Bucklee. In her book, "A Church and Its Village," she writes that the church's rector, James Asbury McKenney, received $150 from the Bishop's Penny Fund "for work among the colored people of Laurel." The rector, Bucklee writes, proposed starting a "colored Sunday School on January 9, 1887," and the vestry voted to allow use of the chapel for the school.

Welsh feels that her church was very traditional, adhering to segregation's mores like the rest of society, but that parishioners felt a "remnant of consciousness" for Laurel's black population.

According to Bucklee's book, "The Episcopal Church had lost many black communicants since the Civil War to Negro Methodist and Baptist churches, where they were free to sit where they pleased, lead their congregations, sing in the choir, select their own clergy. In 1897 the bishop asked parishes anticipating a visitation from him, to look at what provision that congregation made for 'colored people.'"

Who was Barnes Compton?

Compton, who lived in Laurel after 1880, owned a burial lot in St. Philip's cemetery, but no one in his family is buried there. He and his wife are buried in Baltimore, but their "Dear Old Mammy" is buried at St. Philip's.

Welsh said it is uncertain who is buried in the burial lots originally purchased by Compton, but that it is unlikely Simmes is buried in Compton's lot, as her grave is located on the edge of the cemetery.

The November dedication program declared that "Mary Simmes seems to have had a powerful impact on the Compton family."

In addition to being a Maryland state delegate, senator and treasurer, Compton was also a U.S. congressman, state tobacco inspector and vestryman of St. Philip's.

He was Maryland's second largest slave-holder because he was one of the largest landowners in the state, having inherited numerous plantations in Charles and Prince George's counties, and he was a Confederate sympathizer, according to his biography at the Maryland State Archives.

Compton's Confederate sympathies were well known and landed him in prison for a short time after Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theater. According to his state archives biography, "He was elected to the House of Delegates in 1859 on a Democratic ticket. The 1861 session was held at Frederick, MD, instead of Annapolis for war related reasons, but Compton never reached the assembly. He learned that a number of legislative members suspected of Confederate sympathies had been arrested by Federal authorities on reaching Frederick. Compton turned around and escaped across the Potomac into Virginia until his term expired. He returned home and lived without arrest until 1865, when he was imprisoned at the Old Capital in Washington for aiding and abetting John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of President Lincoln. The information proved false and Compton was released without charge after four days."

Bucklee writes that Compton was imprisoned with other supposed conspirators, "Mr. Ford of Ford's Theater, John Wilkes Booth's brother, Junius, and Dr. Richard Stuart."

His campaigns for the U.S. House of Representatives were rowdy affairs. In 1888, the Annapolis Evening Capital editorialized against his campaign because Democratic insiders (dubbed the "ring") made it impossible for any other Democrat to run against him in the primaries. After Compton won, his opponent, Republican Sydney E. Mudd, accused Compton of voter fraud, claiming that qualified voters were turned away from voting and that Democrats posing as U.S. Marshals at polling places in Anne Arundel County denied blacks from voting. The House of Representatives decided in Mudd's favor and awarded him the Congressional seat in 1889. In the 1890 election, however, Compton prevailed again over Mudd, regaining his seat. Also in 1890, he was appointed director of Citizens National Bank in Laurel.

Compton served in the House of Representatives until 1894, when he resigned so that President Cleveland could appoint him Naval Officer at the Port of Baltimore. He served in that capacity until his death.

He died in his Laurel home on Washington Avenue in 1898, and his wife followed him in 1900.

History Matters is a monthly column rediscovering Laurel's past. Contact Kevin Leonard at info@theleonardgroupinc.com or 301-776-9260.

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