Dr. Brome’s controlled plantation landscape and his increasingly large slaveholdings suggest that he had no intention of succumbing to the changes in Maryland agriculture that were pushing most Maryland farmers away from high labor crops like tobacco. Instead, Brome held tightly to the belief that in slavery lay both economic and social wealth. Very little historical evidence informing us about the African American experience at St. Mary’s Manor remains. In all cases, the information that does remain was produced by Brome or other white men, assuring that only information pertinent to their needs was recorded. Combining what we do have with archaeological and architectural data, however, allows us to answer additional questions about the daily life of slaves who lived and worked on the plantation.
Slave family life on any plantation was difficult: the instability presented by slavery meant that family ties were easily broken by the slave trade. In Maryland, this was particularly true, since many planters were shedding excess labor. Other slaveholder actions, such as hiring slaves and manumission, placed slave families under tremendous stress, making the possibility of being divided likely in Maryland. Additionally, most slaveholders only owned one slave, meaning that in order to have a family, husband and wife had to live on separate plantations. These arrangements were known as “abroad” marriages, and were quite common during this period.
The complexity of the slave family is visible through some of the documentary evidence at St. Mary’s Manor. A list compiled by Brome in 1867 groups all his freed laborers by last name, indicating that there were a number of families living on the plantation, including the Biscoe, Whalen, Gough, and Butler families. The Biscoe family, in particular, went as deep as three generations. This indicates that, while Brome engaged in the slave trade, he also maintained some family groups throughout his period of ownership. It is likely that this resulted from Brome’s desire to grow his plantation, rather than selling his labor like many others in Maryland. Encouraging families meant that he could ensure the “natural increase” of new laborers. The architecture supports the use of families for this purpose: Brome used single and duplex quarters that were large enough for individual families to occupy.
This list was compiled by Dr. Brome in 1867 of all the enslaved property that he lost during the Civil War. It lists the individuals by full name, and groups them into families.
This advertisement, placed in the St. Mary’s Gazette in 1861, notes that William Washington Walton had a wife who did not live on the plantation with him.
The list also shows a number of laborers who were not part of a family. William Washington Walton appeared in an 1861 newspaper advertisement for running away. The ad stated Walton ” has a wife at Mrs. W. L. Biscoe’s in the Factory District, in this county,” indicating that he was part of an abroad marriage. Quite often, slaves would slip away to see their wives or children. It is likely that this was the case here, as Walton’s escape was unsuccessful: he appears on the 1867 list as having left with the military in 1862 [Read more about the use of runaway advertisements]. When the 1867 list is compared to the 1870 census, which indicates a number of these families still lived on the plantation, it becomes evident that Walton was not the only person who had an “abroad” marriage. Three other men who were enslaved by Brome had been reunited with their wives and children after Emancipation [Read more about reuniting families after slavery].
While families were a unit of social organization on the plantation, it is likely that the primary social sphere was the larger slave community. Because the conditions of slavery made the family inherently unstable, operating as a community allowed enslaved blacks to engage in a variety of activities while also establishing relationships and cultural continuity. These activities ranged from spiritual to educational to everyday practices of cooking, cleaning, and raising children.
Spatial arrangements can provide a great deal of information about how slave community life may have been structured. At St. Mary’s Manor, the enslaved community was housed along a single road, developing a neighborhood. The duplex quarters’ close proximity to single quarters indicates that families interacted daily. It is likely that activities such as cooking and childrearing were shared by the community, as a response to the heavy workload at the plantation.
Currently, archaeological evidence is being examined in order to determine the extent to which this type of interaction is evident through the material record.