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The life and coat of Tilghman Davis, who drove for the same Maryland family in slavery and freedom

Coat worn by Tilghman Davis, a formerly enslaved servant who worked for a driver for the Ridgely family of Hampton. The coat, worn with a cape and matching hat, would have cost the equivalent of more than six month's labor. Both coat and cape are on display at the Maryland Center for History and Culture through December.
Coat worn by Tilghman Davis, a formerly enslaved servant who worked for a driver for the Ridgely family of Hampton. The coat, worn with a cape and matching hat, would have cost the equivalent of more than six month's labor. Both coat and cape are on display at the Maryland Center for History and Culture through December.

The driver wore a tiered cape over the double-breasted coat with gold buttons. The look would have been completed with a beaver fur top hat with gold braid. It cost the equivalent of more than six months’ labor.

The outfit is a riddle. Well-tailored but garish. Expensive, but nothing that a wealthy man would have chosen to wear. The coat’s label: “Tilghman Davis 1888.”

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It was this uniform that Davis donned as a paid driver for the Ridgelys, a wealthy Maryland family who had held him in slavery years before. The coat’s buttons bear the family’s crest.

What went on in Davis' mind as he wore these clothes? Was he proud? Disgusted? He never learned to read or write, and leaves behind no letters or diaries. We have only his jacket.

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Harvard historian Jonathan Square studies clothing worn by enslaved people. He reads these garments the way others might read a text. “There’s a lot of political information embedded in the clothes that we wear,” he said.

Davis' coat would have marked him as a laborer for the Ridgelys while projecting the family’s wealth and status to the world. In the 19th century, rich slaveholders often ordered expensive livery from high-end companies like Brooks Brothers to clothe public-facing slaves and servants. “Livery was a little over-designed,” Square said. “It wasn’t fashionable or trendy or in vogue.”

The Ridgelys' members included the 15th governor of Maryland. Hampton, their property north of Towson, stretched to nearly 25,000 acres at its height, with hundreds of enslaved laborers tending its massive grounds and ironworks. When it was built, their mansion was the largest private home in the U.S.

Visitors walk the trail to the Hampton Mansion at the Hampton National Historic Site in Towson.
Visitors walk the trail to the Hampton Mansion at the Hampton National Historic Site in Towson. (Nate Pesce for Baltimore Sun Media/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Davis was born at the plantation in 1843, two years after his family was purchased by Jonathan Ridgely, according to a history compiled by the Maryland Center for History and Culture. He eventually worked as a driver for the family. As a youth, Davis would have apprenticed under Nathan Harris, an enslaved coachman famous throughout Baltimore for his ability to drive a four-horse carriage.

“Being an expert carriage driver was a real skill and something that was looked on as an extraordinary asset,” said Hampton curator Gregory Weidman.

But skills and comparatively elite status didn’t mean liberty. Whether they worked in the fields, the furnace or, like Davis, in the stable, enslaved people at Hampton were subject to brutal punishments from overseers and owners. John Ridgely’s grandson recounted times when the old man would “box the ears of one of the grooms for reasons which seemed to me entirely inadequate."

Coachman Nathan Harris is shown driving members of the Ridgely family around Newport, RI when they were on vacation in the summer of 1864. Used courtesy of the Hampton National Historic Site, National Park Service. - Original Credit: Hampton National Historic Site
Coachman Nathan Harris is shown driving members of the Ridgely family around Newport, RI when they were on vacation in the summer of 1864. Used courtesy of the Hampton National Historic Site, National Park Service. - Original Credit: Hampton National Historic Site (HANDOUT)

By the start of the Civil War, freedom must have felt maddeningly just out of reach.

In 1863, Davis and eight others enslaved at Hampton plotted their escape, according to Cheryl LaRoche, a professor at the University of Maryland and author of “Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance.” The cohort didn’t get far. By May 8, the group was committed to the Baltimore City Jail. The following year, John Ridgely turned Davis and two others from Hampton over to the Union Army, though LaRoche says it’s not clear whether they ever served in the military.

Years after the war’s end, around 1877, Davis married a laundress named Elizabeth, with whom he had eight children. He would later go back to work for the Ridgelys, this time, as a paid driver.

It may seem paradoxical that a former slave would return to work for the family that had once called him property. But in the postwar chaos, Davis likely lacked options. After emancipation, for millions of newly freed Black men and women entering the workforce, competition for jobs would have been stiff.

“Work was not always easy to come by and Davis may not have been in a position to pick and choose,” LaRoche wrote in an email. Two of Davis' sisters and one of his sisters-in-law continued to work for the Ridgelys' estate until the late 19th and early 20th century, said Weidman.

Homes along Mount Vernon's Tyson Street, a protected Baltimore landmark, date to the 1700s.
Homes along Mount Vernon's Tyson Street, a protected Baltimore landmark, date to the 1700s. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

In freedom, as in bondage, Tilghman Davis lived on the periphery of wealth. Around the turn of the century, the Davis family lived at various addresses around Mount Vernon, including on Tyson Street, a narrow alley with carriage houses that served the nearby Park Avenue mansions.

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Today, his expensive livery coat is on display through December at the Maryland Center for History and Culture, about a block away.

In recent years, LaRoche led an ethnographic study of the enslaved workers of Hampton. The project is part of a nationwide effort at places like Monticello and Charleston’s McLeod plantation to take a more honest look at the slave labor that made such places possible. Descendants of Hampton’s enslaved workers still live in Maryland.

Among them are Ray Davis, 62, of Owings Mills. He grew up in East Towson, a neighborhood built by freed slaves from Hampton. His family has succeeded in ways that Tilghman Davis could hardly have imagined. Through the generations, they got college degrees and Ph.D.s.

“I grew up in a family where we were taught our history,” he said. It made him all the more determined to fight for his rights. At the same time, hearing stories about what his ancestors went through can hit him like a tsunami, or a shockwave, triggering memories of prejudice he continues to feel to this day. As a Black man in America, he says, “You’re never ever in balance.”

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