At 2 o’clock on March 23, 1642, in “St. Maries,” now known as St. Mary’s City, Mathius de Sousa took his seat in the Maryland General Assembly along with Gov. Leonard Calvert, the first governor of Maryland, and 37 other distinguished gentlemen.
It was only seven years earlier that the First General Assembly of law-making freemen met in session on Feb. 26, 1635. At that time Maryland had only been in existence, in a practical sense, for not quite a year.
I recently had an opportunity to visit historic St. Mary’s City and St. Mary’s College of Maryland. This was the location of Maryland’s first capital, from 1637-1694. It was founded on March 27, 1634 by Leonard Calvert in what is known today as St. Mary’s County.
It is located about 2.5 hours from Westminster at about the southern-most point in Maryland, (GPS address: 18751 Hogaboom Lane, St. Mary’s City). Today, St. Mary’s City is an extensive state-run museum and historic area, www.hsmcdigshistory.org.
As an aside, it is only fitting that mention is made of Juneteenth. This coming Saturday is Juneteenth, otherwise known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, or Emancipation Day.
Juneteenth, a combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth,” is a celebration of events that took place on June 19, 1865. The origin of the holiday dates back to the end of the Civil War and celebrates freedom being granted to over 250,000 slaves.
It began when Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived with 2,000 federal troops in Galveston, Texas, on June 18, 1865, over two months after the surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on the afternoon of April 9, 1865.
One of the foremost matters on the mind of Granger was to take possession of the state of Texas and enforce the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln on Sept. 22, 1862.
The proclamation carried an effective date of Jan. 1, 1863; although in reality, it had little impact on the enslaved population of the south – and freed few, if any slaves.
Granger was determined to change that, at least in Texas. On June 19, 1865, he stood upon the balcony of the Ashton Villa and read the contents of “General Order No. 3,” which put into effect the Emancipation Proclamation throughout the state. The result was a spontaneous community celebration that has been observed every year ever since.
Getting back to the origins of Maryland state government, St. Mary’s City and Mr. de Sousa; the first settlers got off the Ark and the Dove at Blakistone Island on March 25, 1634. Among the passengers onboard the Ark was the first Marylander of African American decent, Mathius de Sousa.
According to a biography written by Maria A. Day, a Maryland State Archives archival intern, de Sousa was an indentured servant of a Catholic Priest, Father Andrew White. Although most terms of indenture lasted for as long as seven years, de Sousa earned his freedom in 1638 by learning to be a fur trader and a sailor.
It was in 1639 that Governor Calvert had ordered elections to take place to choose representatives for the legislative body. In 1641, Mr. de Sousa was elected a delegate to the Maryland General Assembly.
Not much is known about the life and times of de Sousa and what is known is fodder for debate and discussion among historians, but it can be easily argued that de Sousa was the first American of African descent to be an elected official in Maryland, if not the first African American elected official in our nation’s history. It can also be put forth that he was the first African American to vote in America.
It was not until after 1663 that folks of African descent, who came to Maryland to be sold as personal property, were by law, (“servants”) slaves for life. In a curious turn of events, it was not until the following year that slavery was legalized in Maryland. Subsequently, in the 1670s, African Americans were denied the right to vote. In 1672, the Royal African Company was formed in England and the trade in human beings from Africa to Maryland continued in earnest.
As much as Maryland can be proud of the achievements of Mathius de Sousa, the history of the treatment of African Americans in Maryland and our great nation is otherwise the story of horrific shame.
Some reference materials suggest that as many as 75% of the slaves brought to Maryland either died in trans-Atlantic transport or in their first year in Maryland.
Some apologists want you to believe that many of the slaves were treated well, however, folklore, legal proceedings, and various published accounts all too often present a picture of horrific hardship and mistreatment.
One needs to look no further than the trial of plantation owner, Simon Overzee, in 1658. The details of the trial can be found in Provincial Court Proceedings of 1658.
Overzee “disciplined” a slave by the name of “Toney” for not working hard enough. Toney was thereupon tied to a tree and whipped. According to one synopsis of the proceedings, not comfortable that this was not enough punishment, Mr. Overzee then “poured scolding hot lard on Toney’s wounds… (tied him up by the wrists) and suspended him in mid-air to dangle for several hours.”
Toney subsequently died, but the court decided that the action taken by Overzee was legal because, “No one could prove that he had punished Toney more than he was allowed.”
A meaningful portion of the present-day quality of life in Maryland was built throughout our history on the backs of African Americans in bondage. We cannot change the past; however, in order to go forward to face the challenges which confront us, we need all hands on deck. And to do that we need to meaningfully address old wounds.
Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. His Time Flies column appears every Sunday. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.