Slavery & Freedom at Washington College

Historian Craig Steven Wilder, author of Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, spoke at Washington College in 2017. Asked how we might go about studying our own connections to slavery, Wilder replied, simply tell the truth. This project represents our efforts to do just that. 

At Washington College we hear a lot about our benefactor George Washington, and our founder Reverend William Smith. But what about Primus, the boy Smith claimed as his property in Maryland and uprooted from his home when Smith returned to Pennsylvania in 1789? Or Charlotte, the slave of Board Visitors and Governors Treasurer Joseph Wickes, who was hired out to serve President Timothy Clowes? What of Harriet Shephard, enslaved by a Board member, who escaped with her five children, and told Philadelphia Underground Railroad workers that she had not been “used kind”? Or Jim, Harriet, Emory, and Juliana, four children under the age of fifteen, advertised for sale to pay their master’s debt to the College in 1845?

Since January, 2018, a rotating team of undergraduate student researchers has been working with Professor of History Dr. Carol Wilson to uncover the hidden history of enslavement at Washington College, to tell the stories of the enslaved people who made the College’s survival possible.


 Slavery was deeply embedded in American institutions at all levels–government, law, church, and higher education. Slavery and enslaved people were everywhere in early America. Slavery existed in Chestertown, and throughout Kent County and the Eastern Shore, from the College’s founding in 1782 until Maryland’s abolition of slavery in 1864. Its repercussions continued even after abolition as those in power strove to preserve the old social order.

Washington College was no exception. The College had deep and numerous ties to slavery throughout its early history, profiting from the labor of enslaved men, women and children. We researched College connections in the following ways: slave ownership of early donors, founders, Presidents, Board members, and students. We also examined the presence of enslaved people on campus and how the rental and sale of College-owned land was connected to slaveholders.


The story of Washington College and people of color is not only a story of enslavement. Before emancipation, Maryland was the slave state with the largest free black population. Free people of color were everywhere, and represented a visible, human contrast to the racist notion that black people were suited only for servitude. In Kent County, free blacks worked and lived alongside enslaved people and whites and were part of the daily life and social fabric of communities, small and large. 

At Washington College as well, free people of color were part of the community through various types of business relationships. Others managed to acquire freedom from College-connected owners by means both legal and extralegal. Our investigation continued into the post-emancipation era, looking at the both the lives of Civil War veterans formerly enslaved by Board members, and black families who fought to prevent their children from virtual re-enslavement by Board members through forced apprenticeship arrangements.

The Project

Our team of undergraduate researchers has investigated the slaveholding of people connected to the College, including presidents, College founders, Board of Visitors and Governors members, and students. We have researched the presence of enslaved workers on campus, and the connection between slaveholding and College land rentals and loan agreements.