It’s a small thing, this old letter, about seven inches tall by five inches wide. The ink has faded to brown over the years; the back of the page is smudged, perhaps by food or fingertips.
But the 220 words that an enslaved Baltimore cook wrote on Dec. 6, 1861 to her imprisoned master comprise a remarkably complex document. For all its homespun chatter of dinners cooked and parties attended, it is a subtle and even potentially subversive communication, according to a historian who examined the letter after the missive resurfaced in Pennsylvania.
Its mysteries begin with the oddly personal salutation that Sybby Grant chose: “My friend.”
Later this month, Grant’s letter will be on display for the first time at the the 19th-century mansion where she worked when the Walters Art Museum reopens the historic property following a $10.4 million renovation. The palatial home formerly known as Hackerman House (now rechristened 1 W. Mt. Vernon Place) is part of the Walters, the latest Baltimore institution to acknowledge that enslaved people like Grant are as central to the institution’s history as the people who founded it.
The discovery of Grant’s letter has changed the way the Walters presents itself to the public.
“You can look at this house as a micro-history of Baltimore and the nation,” said Eleanor Hughes, the museum’s deputy director and project curator. “Sybby’s letter opened up a different direction into the kind of research we were able to do.”
In recent years, museums formed from historic homes have begun publicly confronting their pasts as slave-holding estates. Visitors to national monuments such as Mount Vernon and Monticello and to such local sites as Hampton National Historic Site and the Homewood Museum now learn about the contributions made by enslaved men and women.
But it’s less common for an art museum to go through that process, said Scott E. Casper, a historian and dean of the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. That’s because relatively few art museums are located in historic Southern houses built before 1865, when slavery was abolished in the United States.
The Walters staff has always known that enslaved people had lived in the Greek Revival mansion constructed as the home for John Hanson Thomas, the great-grandson of the president of the Continental Congress. Hughes said that about a half-dozen enslaved people lived in the house when it was built around 1850. By the following decade, that number had dwindled to two, according to census records.
“One of the focuses of our renovation is to treat the house as an object of art in and of itself and to tell the stories of the people who lived and worked here,” museum director Julia Marciari-Alexander said. “That includes the enslaved individuals who worked in these homes.”
But the Walters staff was hampered by not knowing the captives’ names. A breakthrough came from an unexpected source.
Students at the Baltimore School for the Arts brought Grant’s name to the museum’s attention in early 2016 after creating a series of informational posters about former captives and attaching the placards to the gates of historic homes where they once lived. The students learned of the letter from Baltimore Heritage, a historical preservation group that has included Grant’s story in a tour the group has conducted since 2013.
“When we found out about the letter, we moved fast,” said Hughes, the Walters’ Deputy Director for Art and Program.
An internet search revealed that Grant’s letter was owned by a book dealer in Philadelphia; the Walters bought the document and hired a researcher to spend a year delving into the cook’s life. The Walters also formed an academic advisory committee that included Casper to interpret the letter.
Though it was illegal to teach enslaved people to write, Casper said it wasn’t uncommon for black captives to be literate if that was required for their work. Cooks, for instance, might need to read and write down recipes. He noted that Grant penned her missive at an especially tense moment in Maryland history and that people on both sides of the slavery debate could find evidence in the document to support their views.
At the time, Maryland was occupied by Union troops and was under martial law. Thomas had been arrested on September 12, 1861 because of his pro-Confederate leanings and spent the next five months in a succession of Union prisons.
The Maryland Historical Society contains two boxes of letters written daily during that period by Thomas and his wife, Annie. In a Dec. 7, 1861 note, Annie Thomas proposed using Grant’s letter to generate sympathy for the Confederate cause.
“No abolitionist can be made to believe that a woman who has been your slave for 22 years could have the feelings of kindness towards all of us which her simple letter indicates,” Annie Thomas wrote. “I’d very much like to have the letter published in one of our Balto papers. … I have kept a copy.”
But for Casper, the letter contains clues that Grant secretly yearned for freedom. The salutation, for instance, is strikingly personal at a time when it was customary for even wives to address their husbands, as Annie Thomas did, as “My dear Dr. Thomas.”
“For an enslaved woman like Sybby Grant to write ‘my friend’ suggests a leveling of the social and economic distance between them,” Casper said.
Hughes notes that Grant apparently was a highly skilled cook — her recipe for terrapin soup is daunting — and wasn’t above indulging in mild bragging to underscore her value to the Thomas family.
The letter also reminds Thomas that he’s in prison by comparing his predicament to that of “the children of Israel” — a reference to the pharaohs’ enslavement of the ancient Israelites with which the doctor would have been familiar. Casper notes that Grant refrains from drawing an explicit comparison with her own situation.
“Sybby Grant knew her audience,” Casper said. “She knew she had to be careful. It could be problematic for her to use a letter such as this to express discontent or to complain, especially at a moment when Maryland is a Union state with Confederate sympathizers. She can’t say that she wanted to be free. But that sentence suggests that Dr. Thomas is wishing for the same kind of liberation that his own enslaved cook was wishing for.”
Not much is known about what happened to this resourceful woman once slavery was abolished. But Hughes said that the museum’s research has uncovered a reference to a cook named Sybby Grant who was employed in Washington in the 1890s, suggesting that later in life she might have been paid for her hard-won expertise.
As the Walters staff pondered the best way to tell Grant’s story, they turned to the local community for help. An upstairs hallway at Hackerman House is aglow with 400 ceramic plates attached to large, oval mirrored panels. The plates refer to Grant’s work as a cook and were decorated by Baltimore children and adults under the guidance of local mosaic artist Herb Massie.
“I mounted the plates on mirrors because I wanted them to reflect our faces as we walked past,” Massie said.
In addition, the Philadelphia-based ceramic artist Roberto Lugo was so moved by Grant’s story that he crafted a set of glazed off-white fine china emblazoned with a black crest designed in the cook’s honor.
The crest incorporates a Black-Eyed Susan, the state flower of Maryland, where Grant lived as a slave. It includes a cross that’s testament to her religious faith. And there’s a terrapin that pays homage to the cook’s culinary prowess. The dinnerware has been set around an inlaid 19th-century style dining table where rich folk like the Thomases would customarily have taken their meals, but where enslaved people would never have been invited to eat.
The symbolism isn’t lost on Hughes.
“It’s taken more than 150 years,” she said, “but Sybby Grant finally has a place at our table.”
Sybby Grant's letter
“I take this opportunity to write you a few lines to enquire after your health. I hope you are in good health. I miss you very much indeed. I hope the time will soon come when you will be restored to your family again for I will ever hold you as a friend of mine. When ever I cook a good dinner I wish you was here to enjoy it. Yesterday we had a fine pair of canvas back ducks made a present to Miss Anna. They was [indecipherable] splendid and I wish you was here to enjoy them. Those terrapins I cooked, I done them in style, for you know that no one can do them like I can. I never get on my knees but what I ask God to remember you.
“That God that delivered the children of Israel will deliver you if you put your trust in him. Good night. May God bless you. Miss Anna is well and her Ma is better. Miss Nannie & Miss Mary came down tonight to let me see them after they were dressed to go to the party. They looked very sweet, Miss Anna wearing curls. You ought to behold her face now.
“No more at present
“I remain your humble servant