Despite the regimented plantation landscape that Dr. Brome established, separating slave labor from more public spaces, slaves still had opportunities to participate and interact with other African Americans outside of the plantation. These activities were often limited, and, mostly, sanctioned by their owners. Slaves would have likely carried passes or notes indicating that their travel was sanctioned, in order to avoid punishment or capture. Through abroad marriages, slave hiring, interactions in markets, church, and running away, African Americans regularly participated and negotiated the boundaries imposed by the plantation landscape. At the Brome plantation, evidence shows that, through marriage and running away, slaves were able to move outside of the plantation. Further analysis of the archaeological record may be able to show that slaves also participated in local markets and attended local churches.
One advertisement placed in the St. Mary’s Beacon by Brome describes one of the most visible forms of resistance to slavery: running away. This particular document refers to a runaway slave, William Washington Walton, who escaped his bondage at some point in June or July of 1861, on the cusp of the Civil War. Runaways were a common part of life in the plantation south, as slaves attempted to use the Underground Railroad to flee to the North. By 1861, however, this flight had been curtailed by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850: This legislation required that escaped slaves who sought refuge in the North were still enslaved, and remained the property of their owners: those found aiding or abetting slave runaways were committing a federal crime.
Regardless, slave runaways were among the most public displays of resistance to bondage. They forced plantation owners like Brome to publicly acknowledge that their property did not want to be enslaved, a direct blow to the planters’ argument that slaves were happy with and benefited from their condition. In a few instances, the most daring of escapes were often published by white abolitionist groups. These accounts, written by the black escapees, not only made public the brutality of their enslavement, but demonstrated a glaring fact: that black men and women were capable of learning to read and write at exceptional levels.
Most striking, however, is the use of the Underground Railroad by runaways, indicating that the process of escape was a community activity that required the efforts of many-both African American and white- to succeed. Such a network implies that slaves were able to build relationships outside the plantation in order to enter in to the Underground Railroad. In Walton’s case, his escape to freedom was unsuccessful: he appears again on Brome’s list of slaves lost during the Civil War, having left with the military in 1862.
Marriage gave African Americans a chance to leave their home plantation. Particularly in Maryland, where the average slaveholding on most plantations was very small, these “abroad marriages,” were quite common. Because slaves spent much of their waking hours working, it was very difficult for married couples to visit each other. Sundays were the most popular time for visiting, since most slaves had these days off. Such visits were typically sanctioned by the slaveowners, as long as slaves returned for work.
At St. Mary’s Manor, some marriages were abroad, while others were not. One abroad marriage, between William Washington Walton and his wife, can be identified through the runaway slave ad, in which Brome notes that Walton had “a wife at Mrs. W.L. Biscoe’s in the factory district.” Brome includes this since it was common for husbands to visit their wives and to try to escape with them. This advertisement shows the distance and difficulty that abroad marriages could have on a slave’s attempts at gaining freedom.
It is possible that other slaves may have also had abroad marriages. Hiram Bennet, Peter Biscoe, and Charles Biscoe are all listed on the 1870 census with wives. However, their wives, Eliza, Jane, and Margaret, and their children, are not on Brome’s 1864 list of slaves. Considering that some of these couples are of an advanced age, and have older children that were born during slavery, it is likely that these couples were married before Emancipation, and had abroad marriages. This indicates that they often spent time off the plantation, visiting their wives and children at night and on Sundays.
Hiram and Eliza Bennet and Peter and Jane Biscoe appear as married couples on the 1870 census, but only the men appear on the 1864 list of slaves tallied by Dr. Brome. It is likely they were married during slavery, but lived on separate plantations.