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Uncovering the Hidden History of Enslaved People at St. Paul’s Parish, Baltimore

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The Rev. Mary Luck Stanley

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland invited me to research the history of St. Paul’s Church in relationship to chattel slavery, and to present at the Trail of Souls Pilgrimage. I am grateful to Audry Gagnon, a former intern with the Episcopal Service Corps, for her research at the Maryland Historical Society. Thanks also to John Henderson, civil rights attorney and former Sr. Warden, for his research into the story of Reverdy Johnson.

Tobacco

When the Diocese of London founded St. Paul’s Parish in 1692 as an established member of the Church of England, people living within the parish boundaries were taxed forty pounds of tobacco per year, paid to the Church. For the first hundred years of this congregation’s life, tobacco income was the main source of support. The clergy of St. Paul’s were granted “glebe land” to grow tobacco, thus providing for their income. Typically, enslaved people farmed the tobacco. St. Paul’s Church was built on the labor of enslaved people.

Baptisms and Marriages

Beginning in the 1790s, and for the following hundred years, more than one hundred people of African descent were recorded in the parish register as being baptized by the clergy of St. Paul’s. A slave balcony was included in the third church that seated 1700 people, before it burned down in 1854. The parish register lists “slave, mulatto, negro, and free black” names both for baptisms and marriages up until the 1830’s. Presumably, the opening of St. James’ Parish for African Americans, founded in 1824, caused the drop off in baptisms.

Clergy Responsibilities

“Under the wing of St. Paul’s: In 1873, when St. James’ Church had been greatly weakened by withdrawals and other causes, the vestry requested the Rev. Dr. Hodges, rector of St. Paul’s Parish, to assume charge of the spiritualities of the parish. Hence, from then until the end of 1888, the priests in charge of the parish were assistants of the Rev. Dr. Hodges. The last priest furnished by St. Paul’s was a colored clergyman, Father B. W. Timothy.” St. James Church: History 1824-1949, Anniversary Pamphlet from 1849, page 5.

As part of a diocesan ministry, at the request of the bishop of Maryland, the clergy from St. Paul’s also took on some of the pastoral ministry for the Johns Hopkins Colored Orphan Asylum. There are almost fifty names of girls at the Colored Orphan Asylum who were listed in the register as being baptized in the twenty years that St. Paul’s was in charge of their care.

Abolition

“In 1789, leaders of St. Paul’s Church organized the founding of The Maryland Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Free Negroes and Others Unlawfully held in Bondage. This was the fourth anti-slavery society in the United States and the sixth in the world. Founding members included Judge Samuel Chase, Attorney General Luther Martin, and Dr. George Buchanan, all from St. Paul’s.” St. Paul’s Parish Baltimore: a chronicle of the Mother Church, by Francis F. Beirne, page 47.

“The manumission of slaves, which a decade before had received stimulus from Dr. George Buchanan and the anti-slavery society, was creating a problem. The freed men found much difficulty adjusting to their new condition for they had virtually nowhere to go. A possible solution which attracted many people was the proposal to establish a nation for them in Africa. Again some members of St. Paul’s took an active interest in the plan. John Eager Howard was vice president of the Colonization Society which was organized on a national scale with headquarters in Washington.” St. Paul’s Parish Baltimore, page 84.

Reverdy Johnson

In 1931, the children and grandchildren of vestryman Reverdy Johnson (1796-1876) had a brass memorial mounted on a wall in the nave of St Paul’s. Inscribed on the plaque are the words, “lover of the Anglo-Saxon Race, of North and South, of Justice and of Peace.” The life of Reverdy Johnson reflects the fact that Baltimore was caught in the crosshairs of issues swirling around slavery and the Civil War. Johnson epitomizes these complexities, arguing, as an attorney, a pro-slavery position in the ruinous Dred Scott case, but also advocating for the 13th Amendment (ending slavery) a decade later. He favored the Union, and called the Confederates traitors, while also advocating for state autonomy. He condemned slavery and gave up the slaves he inherited, though he campaigned against extending citizenship, equal protection of the law, and voting rights to the freedmen, opposing both the 14th and 15th Amendments. Johnson regularly opposed Lincoln, but also became an ally in the war, ending up as a pallbearer at Lincoln’s funeral.

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