A servant's life re-enacted

A young girl kneels on the floor as she shaves soap into a bucket of hot water in her traditional 19th-century servant garments - a white head scarf, a pink bell-sleeved shirt over a white ruffled shirt and a long linen skirt.

The kitchen smells of burning wood from the open hearth and sunrays highlight the dust on antique chairs, a large wooden table, pots and a rack used to roast pigeons.


"Did you bring the letter?" the girl asks onlookers. "My mother said she would send me a letter."

Through Krenee Tolson's performance, Grace Wisher, a 14-year-old apprentice in the house of Mary Pickersgill, comes alive at The Flag House & Star-Spangled Banner Museum.


Very little is known about Wisher, who for six years lived as an apprentice with Pickersgill, a Baltimore entrepreneur who made the American flag in 1813 that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner" the next year.

But what historians have been able to glean about Wisher is part of a re-enactment at the Flag House Museum that was unveiled in October and is being shown again during Black History Month.

"Grace makes the story more exciting; there's more to look at," says Tolson, a junior at Baltimore School for the Arts, one of two actors who portray Wisher. "It's more than the one-sided view of whites living in a house."

Eric Voboril, director of programs and collections at the museum, says records show that Wisher lived in the house with Pickersgill's daughter and mother and a boarder, who are also portrayed in the re-enactment.

Wisher was a free slave bound into an apprenticeship by her mother, Jenny Wisher, in December 1809.

"We don't know her precise age. She was as young as 10 years old based on the research of a historian," Voboril says. "We don't know when she was born or when she died."

Historically, parents who were unable to financially support their children were required by law in Maryland to put them into an apprenticeship so that they could learn a skill, he says.

As an apprentice, Wisher learned housekeeping and sewing while living with the Pickersgills.


What was atypical about the arrangement was that her mother handled the contract, a responsibility that was normally carried out by the man in a family.

"Her mother may have needed the money and signed Wisher away in a type of crude foster care, because she could not afford to take care of her," he says. "Most African-Americans living at the time where in poverty."

Maryland was home to many free blacks. However, Wisher's father may have been a slave, or her mother may have been a widow or a single mother, historians say. "It was possible that a freed slave could be married to an enslaved person," Voboril says.

What is known about Wisher was taken from the contract with Pickersgill, which was kept by the Orphans' Court in Baltimore County; Pickersgill's tax records; and census information.

No one knows where her mother lived or where she was from because neither the tax records nor the city directories from 1810 to 1820 list a Jenny Wisher.

"Unfortunately, there are very few records on African-Americans," Voboril says.


Wisher was added to the Pickersgill re-enactment after two years of research.

Wisher's story shows that African-Americans were often behind the scenes of great historic events, he says.

Visitors to the museum on this October day agreed.

"I thought the inclusion was good; it helped bring into perspective that slavery and servitude existed at that time," says visitor Maribel Pereiras. "It also showed that Mary had a lot more help making the flag. She must have had servants helping."