Why Black Lives Must Matter in Chestertown: Three Stories of Suffering and Survival, by Adam Goodheart

Chestertown has much to be proud of in its history — legacies we can look to as we strive to undo racism and redress continuing wrongs.

Soon after the American Revolution, Chestertown had one of the first organized abolitionist groups in the nation. We have stories of successful Black entrepreneurs as far back as 300 years ago. There are historically Black churches whose proud histories stretch back 200 years or more, and Black families that possess centuries-long legacies of leadership, activism, and achievement. We have hundreds of local heroes who fought in the U.S. Colored Troops in the Civil War, and more recent local heroes who won victories in the Civil Rights Movement. Many white residents are just as unfamiliar with these stories as they are with the history of local slavery, segregation, and white supremacy.

But there is other history that, for many in our community, has lain buried largely unseen for centuries — unseen, that is, by white residents’ eyes. If there were ever a time to make that history visible to everyone, it is now.

Here are three primary-source documents that tell stories from our Historic District. Much like the recent videos of George Floyd’s death and others, they are painful to look at. They may be traumatic for some readers.

Yet — like those videos — they are essential if we are all to understand the true meaning of the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”

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Document 1:

Thomas Ringgold’s business letter, 1761

From the 1740s to the 1770s, Thomas Ringgold lived in the building at the foot of High Street now known as the Custom House, from which he also ran his business. He exported grain and imported mercantile goods. He also brought hundreds — possibly thousands — of kidnapped and enslaved Africans to America.

Ringgold wrote this letter to his business partner in Annapolis. They had recently made a contract with a Liverpool slave trader to sell 320 enslaved men, women, and children being brought on the infamous Middle Passage from West Africa to the Chesapeake. As Ringgold had written a few days earlier, the ship had encountered some unspecified “misfortune” resulting in “the Loss of so great a part of her Slaves, that we had but 105 of them left to sell, 11 of them were so bad we were glad to get 11 pounds sterling per head with them, 6 of the 11 since dead and many of the others in bad condition.”

In the letter shown here, dated August 15th, 1761, he writes: “We sold 14 of the Negroes yesterday, very well considering the condition they were in. The wenches and one man at 60 [pounds] each, one man £68, one boy £60, girls at £56, two sickly girls cheap, the mate’s boy for £70, the small … boy died…. Under the circumstances, we refused no offers.”

In other words, Ringgold was participating in mass murder for profit from his office in the Chestertown historic district, and treating murdered human beings as if they were merchandise that had spoiled.

Black lives did not matter to Thomas Ringgold.

Document 2:

Chestertown customs record, 1770

Samuel Wallis lived in a house that still stands on the 100 block of High Street. Like Ringgold, he was a leading Chestertown merchant. Like Ringgold, he traded in enslaved human beings.

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This document is a customs record for the port of Chestertown in 1770. It records the arrival of Wallis’s schooner, the Hannah, on October 8, 1770, bringing “14 Negroes” from Barbados. Unlike Ringgold’s slaves, who were brought to Annapolis by his Chestertown-based trading firm, these Black captives arrived directly at the Chestertown waterfront.

To understand what this simple record actually represents in human terms:

Imagine a vessel a good bit smaller than the schooner Sultana (this document shows that the Hannah had 45 tons capacity, vs. Sultana’s 58), nearly at full capacity with a captain and seven crew members, a small cargo of rum (also noted in this record), and enough food and supplies for 22 people on a long voyage. There could not have been much space left on such a vessel.

Then imagine being one of 14 people imprisoned somewhere below decks in addition to all the cargo and crew, in a tiny walled-off and locked area. You are also very probably wearing heavy iron shackles, to prevent you and the other enslaved people from rising up and overwhelming the eight enslavers. You have already been physically and psychologically abused before coming aboard.

Then imagine an ocean journey of more than two thousand miles — at least several weeks — from Barbados to Chestertown, without light or fresh air in that tiny space, awash in 14 people’s urine and feces and vomit, with minimal food and water, to an unknown destination, permanently separated from your family and everyone else you have ever known. That journey would be hellish beyond imagining, and quite likely some of the enslaved Black people would not survive it.

Black lives did not matter to Samuel Wallis.

 

Document 3:

Memoirs of Isaac Mason, 1846

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Isaac Mason lived in a house that still stands near the northwest corner of Fountain Park, the new home of the Kent Cultural Alliance. He was one of several Black people enslaved by James Mansfield, a middle-class white carpenter and Methodist preacher, and his wife, Margaret.

This document is a page from Mason’s autobiography, published many years later. (The full book is online free here.)

In the summer of 1846, the Mansfield family purchased some beef that quickly spoiled — in Mason’s words, “having maggots in it nearly as long as a little finger.” Instead of throwing the meat away, the masters boiled it and ordered their slaves to eat it. It tasted so foul that Mason, then in his early 20s, could not bear to swallow it. He surreptitiously slipped his portion to the family dog.

Unfortunately, one of the Mansfields spotted him. When he learned of Mason’s act, James Mansfield treated it as an insult to his family. He confronted the young man in the backyard of the house and started beating him savagely with a four-foot stick. Mason struggled in self-defense, attempted to wrest the stick away, and then pushed Mansfield into a pile of firewood. The outraged James called for Margaret to bring him a gun, Mason fled, and his master opened fire. One of several shots grazed Mason’s head before he reached the safety of some mulberry bushes, where he hid for two days before returning to the Mansfield house.

After enduring several more months of enslavement and abuse, Mason escaped to freedom during Christmas week via the Underground Railroad, guided and sheltered along the way by free Black families until he was in Philadelphia, far from Chestertown.

Black lives did not matter to James and Margaret Mansfield.

*           *           *

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Many, many more such stories can be told — and have been told — about Chestertown. In the words of Kent County historian Karen Somerville, responding to people who talk about the “historic charm” of downtown:

“Please tell me where is the charm in the history of High Street and its adjoining streets in the [1892] lynching of James Taylor, or the [1858] tar and feathering led by the town’s Sheriff of a Black woman and the White male who assisted in her protest; the sentences handed down from Kent County’s Court house to White women who bore the “issue” of Black men….? Is it in today’s overzealous sentences leveled upon Blacks and others lacking social-economic equivalence? … Was charming the goal as gentrification herded Black families from downtown C-town dwellings that held generations of heritage and familiar comforts? Where is the “charm”? If charm is to be defined only by the eye, what then guides the character of our hearts?”

For me, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is not just about condemning racism and injustice. It is also about honoring the endurance, resistance, and human dignity of the men, women, and children enslaved by Thomas Ringgold and Samuel Wallis. It is about honoring the courage of Isaac Mason. It is about honoring thousands of others in Kent County — and millions of others throughout America — whose full stories are, sadly, now lost to us.

If we can do that now, then perhaps future generations of Chestertown’s citizens can look back on this moment — the troubled summer of 2020 — and find history here to be proud of.

Adam Goodheart is director of Washington College’s Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience

17 comments

  1. Speechless Thank you Adam for this writing. We must all unite to make certain this history never repeats itself.

  2. Thank you for bringing this now-obscure history to the light of day at the right time. We need for Chestertown to proclaim to the world that our ancestors were wrong and that Black lives do indeed matter – a lot – to us now.

  3. Another powerful and rational statement in support of why our Town Council must show leadership and moral courage in endorsing and facilitating a High Street mural for Black Lives Matter.

  4. Unspeakable acts against humanity, and yet it has taken literally centuries for them to be brought to light. Black Lives did not matter to so many for so long. Thank you for helping us all understand why we absolutely must listen, learn, and support Black Lives Matter now.

  5. A powerful article that is much needed. We cannot continue to ignore this dark side of our history and we have to work to see that such things don’t happen again. Considering the state of our nation now, it is sadly not farfetched to say that it could happen.

  6. Adam, I have just read the entire account by Isaac Mason. It was moving, frightening in terms of the cruelty of his “masters” in Chestertown to him, and thrilling to reach of his escape to freedom and many travels after that. Well written too, for a man with such little education. An extraordinary tale.

  7. Thank you Adam for adding to the incontrovertible and moving body of testimony attesting to why now is the time for Chestertown to lay a firm and visible foundation for bringing all sectors of our community together in the spirit of reconciliation grace and equanimity.

  8. Truly our nation was built on the backs and of the blood of black slaves. We must always recognize this shadow of history casts a dark shadow, an evil wash, over today’s quaint, pastel tourist towns and industrious citirs, these pretty exterior forms feed our desire to forget the atrocities that fueled the economy that brought us to today. All is tarnished with this history. Where is our redemption?

  9. Adam, thank you very much for putting this history in the light. Now PEOPLE can understand why Black Lives Matter. If they don’t understand that Black Live Matter, then they need to also read Isaac Mason Book.

  10. Perhaps the Kent County Historical Society in their 50th anniversary house tour next year can showcase these locations with the historic documents and incidents you have unearthed. These houses still stand, as you say. Let’s make sure the history of what went on here —all of it— still stands too.

  11. Thank you, Adam, for doing such important work and sharing it so powerfully. Knowing and confronting our past is an essential part of building a true community today.

  12. Profound and eloquent analysis I was such a horrific aspect of humanity and history. As a historian myself I know that all people from all ethnicities have historical aspects of brutality and inhumanity towards one another. However in this time and place we must address this sad and Despicable part of our history in America bye showing compassion and understanding for the anger and resentment felt by African-Americans, and by working for the betterment of all people.

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