Free African Americans

Maryland had the largest free black population of any state in the 19th century. Chestertown and Kent County had significant free black communities. By 1850, more than a quarter of Kent County’s population was comprised of free people of color, larger than the enslaved population. Ten years later, the county had a free black population of 3,400, about half of whom lived in Chestertown. 

Free blacks were closely tied to the enslaved population, often living and working side-by-side, marrying and starting families. Free people labored to purchase the freedom of family members still enslaved. Free African Americans also provided a constant, living antidote to racist ideology that people of color were born to be slaves, that they could not survive without the confines of slavery.

Kent County’s free black residents interacted with Washington College in several ways–in business exchanges as entrepreneurs, hiring out their labor as independent contractors, and as renters and purchasers of College lots.

An 1841 bill from Perry Chambers to College Treasurer Joseph Wickes for a variety of goods, one of many found in the College’s financial records, likely supplying the Steward’s Department.

Record from College Board 1854 meeting discussing the brickmaking done on Chambers’s lot.

Free Black Businessmen

Pere (or Perry) Chambers was a butcher/grocer and prominent member of the antebellum black community who had a multifaceted relationship with the College. Chambers lived with his wife Jane and children Elizabeth and James on Princess (now Queen) Street in the Scott’s Point section of Chestertown, a largely black neighborhood. The 1860 Martenet’s map shows his house, with the site of his business, labeled “Slaughterhouse”, next door. Chambers was one of the guiding forces behind of the re-building of Zion (later Janes) Methodist Episcopal Church during the Civil War; he became a minister late in life.

The College’s Steward’s Department, responsible for boarding students, ordered its supplies from several African-American butchers/grocers, including Chambers. From the 1830’s through the ’50s, Board of Visitors and Governors Treasurer Joseph Wickes paid Chambers for various cuts of beef, fish, as well as lemons, watermelon, crackers, bottles of ale, and taffy candy. Chambers was literate, signing his name and sometimes writing out the orders.

Starting in 1819, Chambers began renting two College lots, numbers 43 and 44; by 1835 he had purchased the land. This land is located on what is today Philosopher’s Terrace, currently the open lot behind Cromwell Hall. What Chambers used the land for is unknown, but it could have been for agricultural use. Chambers’s total land area amounted to one acre. Most people who rented or bought College land were white; Chambers was one of several free African Americans.

In 1827, the original College building was destroyed by fire. In 1854, Pere Chambers’s lot across the street from the campus was used as a brickyard to make the bricks for what are now called East and West Halls. Chambers also provided sand used in the brickmaking process, hauling it from Havre de Grace. Compensation for Chambers was discussed at three separate Board meetings. After the brickmaking was complete, two members of the Board of Visitors and Governors, Judge Ezekiel Chambers and Dr. Peregrine Wroth, examined the lot to determine damage done by the brickyard, kiln, and clayhole, and Pere Chambers was compensated sixty dollars.

Like Pere Chambers, James A. Jones was a butcher/grocer and prominent figure in the black community. Numerous bills to Jones from College Treasurer Joseph Wickes between 1831 and 1851 for meat suggest that Jones, like Chambers, supplied the Steward’s Department. James A. Jones was literate, signing his own name to the bills. The 1860 Martenet’s map shows Jones owning at least three properties in downtown Chestertown. Significantly, he is the only African American to have a shop fronting High Street.

Jones was an unusual figure, advocating African colonization at a time when few other blacks did, especially successful businesspeople. In 1852, he, along with fellow Chestertown businessman William Perkins, represented Kent County at the Free Colored People’s Convention in Baltimore. There, Jones made an impassioned speech in favor of emigration, arguing that only in Africa could he “expect to be a free man.” Jones’s actions, however, reveal a more hopeful outlook. Active in his community, Jones was one of the founders of Zion (Janes) Methodist Episcopal Church. He helped organize black men to vote in the 1870 election, even selling off one-square-foot plots of land to his Cannon Street neighbors to enable them to meet municipal property requirements for voting.

With research contributed by Paris Young,
Class of 2020

workers on campus

Free African Americans worked on campus in a variety of capacities, as is shown by financial records in the College Archives. Two men, Vincent Robinson and James Warwick, were hired as bell-ringers. Bells were rung to call students fifteen minutes before classes began at eight o’clock in the morning and to their meals three times a day. James Warwick worked for the College in 1832 and 1833. From 1837 to 1845, Vincent Robinson was the bell-ringer. He was paid twenty dollars a year, in quarterly installments.

Robinson seems to have made something of a career of bell-ringing; Commissioners’ Reports reveal that he was also the bell-ringer for the town of Chestertown in the 1840’s and ’50s. He was employed cleaning the Free School Spring as well. By the time Robinson died in the late 1850’s, he had managed to become financially secure enough to purchase a home on the eastern end of Queen Street. 

Receipt for payment to Vincent Robinson for ringing the College bell in 1842.

Nathan Wilson also worked for the College. Financial records show that in 1844 he was paid five dollars to build a fence at the College, and nearly twelve dollars for repairing fencing of College lots. Wilson also did similar work for Board of Visitors and Governors member George W. Thomas at his Kent County farm. Wilson owned a home on Fish Street (today’s Washington Avenue), near the corner of Club Lane (today’s Spruce Street), making him a neighbor of Vincent Robinson. Like Robinson and other free black people who had business dealings with the College, Nathan Wilson’s payment receipts identify him as a “free negro”.

Free black man Thomas Bowser was recognized with two other men in the Minutes of the Board of Visitors and Governors in December, 1817, for his help in putting out a fire that threatened the College earlier that month. Bowser was granted two dollars for his assistance. Since Bowser was on the scene when the fire occurred, it is likely he was employed by the College in some occupation. 

Board Meeting Minutes recognizing Thomas Bowser’s assistance during the 1817 fire.

College Land Owners & Renters

Several free African Americans rented College lots in Chestertown. One, Pere Chambers (see above) a successful businessman and community leader, eventually purchased the two lots he had been renting. Shadrach Brown‘s situation was somewhat different. Brown lived on a quarter-acre portion of a College lot that he rented from a white man, slaveholder Samuel Clark. Clark wrote to Board President Ezekiel Chambers in 1827 asking that Brown be given a lease in his own name. Free African Americans, while not enslaved, still found themselves discriminated against in numerous ways. Having a white advocate like this was often crucial for people of color to acquire things that whites took for granted, like land.

Like Vincent Robinson, Brown was also employed cleaning and maintaining the Free School Spring (at the junction of Washington Avenue and Spring Street). He used his wages to buy at least one child out of slavery–his son Henry, who was aged three and a half in 1819 when his father purchased his freedom. Brown had at least one other child, a son named for him whose story appeared in the Kent News after he drowned while fishing in the Chester River in 1842.



Letter from Samuel Clark asking that free black man Shadrach Brown be granted a lease in his own name for the College lot on which he lived.