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Slavery and the Civil War: Maryland’s complicated past | COMMENTARY

The Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center in downtown Cambridge tells the story of her life on the Brodess Farm in Bucktown, including the historic store, above, where she was nearly killed by an overseer who hit here in the head.
The Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center in downtown Cambridge tells the story of her life on the Brodess Farm in Bucktown, including the historic store, above, where she was nearly killed by an overseer who hit here in the head. (Doug Kapustin, Baltimore Sun)

This Black History Month, there is welcome news that the Maryland legislature may finally banish the official state song — a Civil War anthem rallying support for the Confederacy and maligning President Lincoln as a “despot” and the Union as “Northern scum.” Although these most offensive stanzas have for some time now been dispensed with at events ranging from college football games to the running of the Preakness, the song still rests on the state website, a legacy of its adoption in 1939. It is remarkable enough that many, if not most, Maryland residents are unaware of the militant nature of the tune — not to mention the fact that the legislature has defeated repeal of the song nine times since 1974. But the silence over the anthem is even more revealing of the ways many Marylanders have avoided inconvenient truths about their state’s relationship to slavery and the Civil War.

The stories modern Marylanders tell themselves are mostly those of the state’s alignment with the Union and its unique pedigree of civil rights heroes — starting with abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriett Tubman and continuing on to people like Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, civil and women’s rights advocate Pauli Murray, and U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings. But what this historical procession tends to obscure is not simply that Maryland was a “Border State” below the Mason-Dixon Line, or that John Wilkes Booth was just one of many proud Maryland residents who supported the South and variously pelted Union troops transiting Baltimore with rocks, joined militias blowing up Union rail lines and/or enlisted with the Confederate army. Rather, Maryland’s decision not to secede from the Union and the state’s subsequent industrialization have tended to obscure the broader fact that slavery was pervasive and influential in the state, both during and before the war.

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Indeed, in 1850, the percentages of enslaved and free Black people were roughly the same, with the latter outnumbering the former only among those over the age of 40 (when some had been freed or lost their economic value), according to “Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland During the Nineteenth Century,” by Barbara Jeanne Fields. Such was the pressure of pro-slavery sentiment in the state (not only on the Eastern Shore, but in Baltimore as well) that the enslaving, but anti-secessionist, governor, Thomas Hicks, had to resort to calling the General Assembly into special session in the Union town of Frederick, according to Ms. Fields. After the war, the alignment-with-the-North narrative all but eclipsed the anomalous circumstance that only in November 1864 — more than a year and a half after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared the abolition of slavery in the South — did Maryland amend its constitution by a slender majority to effect this change at home. And very few people know that in 1867, Maryland opposed the Fifteenth Amendment granting Black people the right to vote.

So while many Marylanders, like other Americans, may think that the horrors of slavery were limited to the South, there was plenty of abject misery in Maryland, including on the Eastern Shore plantations where Frederick Douglass was raised. Douglass himself condemned the notion, widespread even at the time he wrote his autobiography in 1855, that slavery in Maryland “exists in its mildest form.” In the decades immediately following the Civil War, conditions in Maryland were scarcely better for most Black people than those of their Southern brethren: Economic prospects were limited, they were subjected to periodic violence, and many of the children of poorer families were forcibly “apprenticed” to white people, enslaved by another name.

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This is a complicated Border State narrative that needs to be more widely shared — in our history books, in our popular culture, and above all, in our middle and high schools. What was it like for free and enslaved members of Black families to live their separate existences within miles of each other? Despite formal emancipation, what did life for African Americans really look like in the years following the Civil War? How did the “Lost Cause” mentality manifest itself after the war, even in a “Northern” state like Maryland? It was, and remains, a complex social and political landscape that we are still navigating today — as we reconsider not just the state song, but Confederate war statuary; the recently-revealed enslavement of at least five Black men by Johns Hopkins, the founder of the university and hospital named after him; and the sometimes glacially slow progress made on civil rights in many parts of the state despite the efforts of pioneers like Gloria Richardson, leader of the civil rights Cambridge Movement on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. A new generation of Maryland residents — and indeed American citizens everywhere — deserve to learn about this complexity. It’s not a simple matter of destroying myths; it’s a matter of inculcating in our citizenry clear and patient historical understanding on which more nuanced — and sturdier — civic accounts can be built.

Malcolm Russell-Einhorn (mrussellein@email.gwu.edu) teaches in the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University.

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