The Blood Is in the Details: When Scars of Slavery Are Markers of Freedom

The Blood Is in the Details: When Scars of Slavery Are Markers of Freedom

On this first day of December, we share our first Field Dispatch from Martha S. Jones, the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. Her most recent work is Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, forthcoming in 2018 from Cambridge University Press.


“Remember the blood on the page.” I have heard this admonition from Ariela Gross, the historian of slavery and race, during more than one conference or workshop. Gross credits this provocative insistence to historian Nell Painter, who has always set a high bar for us as interpreters of the African American past. The intervention is a corrective, inserted into discussions when they veer too close to the romantic, the technical, the abstract, or the antiquarian. It is an insistence that we attend to the human experience that underlies our analyses.

For me, taking account of the blood on the page has sometimes been difficult. Still, it is always important. I am among those historians who took the cultural-legal turn first identified by Gross in her 2001 article ”Beyond Black and White: Cultural Approaches to Race and Slavery.”[1] I pore through docket books, petitions, and other ephemera of law’s administration. There, one document may differ from another only in the smallest detail. My archives are often ministerial in quality: rote formulations penned by scribes whose conventions were self-consciously bloodless.

I learn the lesson of the blood over and again. In recent months, I’ve been at work on a new book and in a new archive. Freedom papers of those held as slaves in Frederick, Maryland, survive as small half-sheets of paper, carelessly penned by court clerks.[2] At first glance, they are strikingly similar in content: pursuant to state law, an enslaved person is deemed free by will, deed, or other act of an owner, and affirmed so by the sworn statement of a white person with knowledge. The clerk formalizes such with his signature and a seal. These come to us as a series of routine transactions, and for historians they are often said to reveal some mix of heroism and benevolence, though the proportions differ depending upon who recounts the tale.

My interest in these archives is in understanding the scope and character of manumissions in early-nineteenth-century western Maryland. Among those said to have freed slaves in this particular jurisdiction is U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney. Some historians have held out Taney’s manumission of slaves as evidence of his anti-slavery sentiments, at least as a young man.[3] I hypothesize that Taney was neither exceptional nor benevolent in having released those men and women who were bound to him by law. But that’s a story for another time. Just now, I’ve come to these archives to extract dates, frequency, and the circumstances of manumission. But it is difficult to remain on task.

There is too much blood in the details.

Freed people are described with a specificity that renders these documents anything but rote. Each has a name, most often two names, a first and a last. Height, complexion, and age are accounted for. But the truest distinctions suggest how those who secured liberty were nonetheless indelibly marked by servitude. “Nelly…a small scar on the left cheek near the corner of the mouth and one on the back of her neck and the little finger on the left hand a little crooked.” “Nancy…a mark just above her lip under the right nostril and several marks on her right arm occasioned by burns, and a scar on her head near the crown.” “Charles…a mark or scar on the thumb of the left hand occasioned by a cut with a knife, and a scar on the right leg between the ankle and knee.” “John…a scar on his right wrist produced by a burn.” Rare is someone like “Bryan” who is described as having “no perceivable mark.”[4]

Freedom Certificate of Nelly Shorter, August 13, 1810. Courtesy of Maryland State Archives Collection, Frederick County Court, Certificates of Freedom, 1806-1827, C761, p. 21.

Court clerks narrate arresting glimpses into the conditions of enslaved people’s labor in the grain fields. “Sarah…a mark on her left arm said to have been produced by the cut of a sickle.” “Philip…a small scar on his forehead, and one likewise on his right foot which scar upon the foot was occasioned by the cut of a reap hook.” “Joshua…a scar on the inner side of his left arm below the elbow, about an inch and a quarter long, occasioned by the cut of a scythe.” “Tom…the little fourth finger of the left hand crooked in the first joint and the nail split occasioned by the cut of a sickle, a small scar on the left side of the left eye.” “Ben…a small scar near the palm of the right hand and a scar occasioned by the cut of a sickle on the palm of the left hand.” “Lydia…two small scars on the little finger of the left hand occasioned by the cut of a sickle.”[5] I pause to read into the technology of grain production, now that I see its cost on the bodies of former slaves.

I am hardly the first historian to contemplate the violence evidenced on these pages. But in these days I have encountered it anew. I am reminded how when reading the fugitive advertisements published in nineteenth century Brazil, Gilberto Freyre saw many classes of violence: disease, malnutrition, overwork, along with the dangerous circumstances of labor.[6] Jean Hébrard adds that, as we read the bodies of former slaves, we can understand the ubiquity of violence and hazard in the lives of many nineteenth-century subjects, be they in the household, the factory, or the field.

To these observations, I would add how sexual violence is also apparent. For every freed person, like “Nero,” who is described as “very black,” there are many others whose bodies tell stories that the clerk leaves us to narrate for ourselves. “Jonny…not very black.” “Levy…of a yellowish complexion.” “John…[a] mulatto man…light complexion.” “Ben…middling black.” “Ann…high yellowish complexion.” “Nelly…a dark mulatto.” “Hannah…light colored.” As clerks ascribed color and complexion, they were also revealing unspoken or, better put, unspeakable intimacies. The certificate of “Nancy Carr a bright mulatto woman” admits that which so many others did not. Her light skin (and free status) were established by parentage; Nancy was “the daughter of Polly Lucas, a white woman.” Some sexual encounters across the color line were narrated on the pages of freedom certificates, but too many others were not.

To recognize the blood on the page requires attention to absences, that which the clerk does not tell. Where are the marks “occasioned” by punishment? Perhaps shirts and shifts covered backs and buttocks such that those scars were not “perceivable” by the clerk’s terms. Perhaps. Then I arrive upon the freedom certificate for “Juliet” with “a cut on the left side of chin, occasioned by a cow hide.” Here, an artifact of the lash that gave Juliet, in the clerk’s terms, a unique, legally cognizable visage. Freedom relied upon such violence, nearly demanded it, as a means by which people held as property were transformed into particularized individuals possessing legal personhood.

Recognizing the blood on the page, understanding its signs, I turn back the microfilm to frame one and begin again.

 

[1] Ariela J. Gross, “Beyond Black and White: Cultural Approaches to Race and Slavery,” Columbia Law Review 101 (April 2001): 640-82.

[2] The freedom papers referenced here are part of the Maryland State Archives Collection,  Frederick County Court, Certificates of Freedom, 1806-1827, C761.

[3] Timothy S. Heubner, “Roger B. Taney and the Slavery Issue: Looking beyond-and before-Dred Scott,” The Journal of American History 97, no. 1 (June 2010): 17-38.

[4] Maryland State Archives Collection, Frederick County Court, Certificates of Freedom, 1806-1827, C761.

[5] Maryland State Archives Collection, Frederick County Court, Certificates of Freedom, 1806-1827, C761.

[6] Gilberto Freyre, O escravo nos anúncios de jornais brasileiros do século XIX: tentativa de interpretação antropológica, através de anúncios de jornais, de característicos de personalidade e de deformações de corpo de negros ou mestiços, fugidos ou expostos à venda, como escravos, no Brasil do século passado (Recife: Imprensa Universitária, 1963).

Martha S. Jones

Martha S. Jones is the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. She is author of Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, forthcoming in 2018 from Cambridge University Press. You can follow her on Twitter at @marthasjones_.

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