Maryland Avenue. South Baltimore Street. Water Street. Are these streets in Maryland? (1)
The answer is “yes” if you’re thinking of Maryland County in Africa. Located at the southeastern tip of Liberia, “Maryland County” takes its current name for the independent settlement and later republic, which began in the 1830s under the direction of the Maryland State Colonization Society. That organization’s mission was to manage the removal of recently-manumitted African-Americans to Africa or elsewhere. Between 1831 and 1851, the society oversaw the state-enforced emigration of 1,025 Maryland-born individuals of color. (2)
Fifteen of those individuals comprised a single unit – the family of Thomas and Frances Davenport (ages 46 and 44, respectively), who had thirteen children and grandchildren. An extract from a Frederick County court record, available at the University of Maryland Special Collections, indicates that the Davenport family was freed by their master Adam Wever on June 24, 1836. But only on “the express Condition that the above named negroes, & each, + every of them shall within a reasonable time from the date of said manumission proceed to the Colony of Cape Palmas in Maryland, in Liberia on the Coast of Africa, + there continue to reside” (http://digital.lib.umd.edu/image?pid=umd:89408).
Indeed, under two weeks after obtaining their freedom from bondage, the Davenport family were nearly compelled to board the brig Financier in Baltimore harbor, along with two other emancipated African-Americans, and sailed for Africa. Thomas Davenport, a farmer and carpenter, lived in the new colony on the west coast of Africa until his death of dropsy in 1843. Indeed, life was precious there. By 1852, only eight of the original fifteen family members – Frances Davenport, six of her children, and one granddaughter – were known to reside in the Maryland colony. (3)
The nation of Liberia and its “Maryland County” deserves recognition within the history of Maryland, which in its broadest sense ought to include mention of the places outside of Maryland which natives of the state have shaped. In particular, the passage by the Maryland legislature of “An act relating to the People of Color in this state” on March 12, 1832, contributed directly to the creation of African-American settlements in Africa. The act empowered a three-person Board of Managers, chosen from among members of the Maryland State Colonization Society, to act on the state’s behalf and with the state’s money to not only encourage slaveholders to free their slaves, but to police the free black community. In the wake of Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia, the politicians who had been elected to represent the state of Maryland passed this measure largely in order to prevent the further growth of the free African-American population, which numbered over 50,000 in the state in 1830. (4)
(A facsimile of the fifty-cent and one dollar paper currency issued by the Board of Managers beginning in October 1837. Also issued were bills equivalent to five, ten, and twenty-five cents. For use by the Maryland emigrants to Liberia at the “Government Store” in Harper, only the equivalent of eight hundred dollars was printed during the first run. (John H.B. Latrobe, “Maryland in Liberia”: a history of the colony planted by the Maryland State Colonization Society under the auspices of the State of Maryland, U.S., at Cape Palmas on the south-west coast of Africa, 1833-1853 (John Murphy & Co.: Baltimore, 1885), p. 57-59, between 134-135). Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries).
One of the measures within the 1832 law involved county clerks and registers of wills, who were deputized into reporting the number and details of the individuals who had been manumitted. Thus, the author of the aforementioned extract, Henry Schley, clerk of the Circuit Court in Frederick County since 1835, when he took over the job from his father, was just following orders when he reported the names and ages of Thomas and Frances Davenport and their offspring to the “Board of Managers.” (4) Schley would have been penalized ten dollars every time he failed to hand-copy this type of record and send it to the authorities in question. The Board of Managers were then supposed to “notify the American Colonization Society, or the Maryland State Colonization Society thereof, and to propose to such society that they shall engage, at the expense of such society, to remove said slave or slaves so manumitted to Liberia.” If the newly emancipated individuals expressed a desire to remain within North America’s Maryland, the board was to alert the sheriff, who would escort them out of the state. To remain in the state, the manumitted could, however, “renounce, in open court, the benefit of said deed or will, and to continue a slave.” Another portion of the law allowed the Board of Managers to hire out (or temporarily purchase) slaves intended to be manumitted. The income accrued from the slave’s labor would help pay for the expenses of removal to Africa. (5)
Without the compliance of county clerks like Schley, the counting and emigration of manumitted African-Americans across the entire state of Maryland would have been more difficult. Over 160 documents in the Maryland Manuscripts Collection at the University of Maryland (http://hdl.handle.net/1903.1/1716) – quite a few in the hand of Frederick County’s clerk Henry Schley – record the manumission, as well as the sale, of slaves to the Board of Managers working on behalf of the Maryland State Colonization Society’s goal of creating Maryland in Africa. Given that only 1,025 individuals left for Liberia out of some 5,571 recorded manumissions in the state between 1831 and 1851, the success of the colonial project – if not the success of the colony – remains debatable. (6)
Dr. Eric C. Stoykovich is the Historical Manuscripts Project Archivist in the University of Maryland’s Special Collections and University Archives in Hornbake Library, where he works under the Curator on collections which tell the story of political officials and civic groups in the state of Maryland. He received his MLS from UMD’s iSchool and a PhD in American history from the University of Virginia. His interests include archival history, political development, and institutional change.