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March 21, 2007

Crossing the River - Together

Kevin E. Dayhoff

At 2 o'clock on March 23, 1642, in "St. Maries," now known as St. Mary's City, Mathius de Sousa took his seat in the Maryland General Assembly along with Leonard Calvert, the first governor of Maryland, and 37 other distinguished gentlemen.

It was only seven years earlier that the First General Assembly of law-making freemen met in session on February 26, 1635. At that time Maryland had only been in existence for less than a year.

The first settlers got off the Ark and the Dove at Blakistone Island on March 25, 1634. Among the passengers onboard the Ark was the first Marylander of African-American decent, Mathius de Sousa.

According to a biography written by Maria A. Day, a Maryland State Archives archival intern, he was an indentured servant of a Catholic priest, Father Andrew White. Although most terms of indenture lasted for as long as seven years, Mr. de Sousa earned his freedom in 1638 by learning to be a fur trader and a sailor.

It was in 1639 that Governor Calvert had ordered elections to choose representatives for the legislative body. In 1641, Mr. de Sousa was elected a delegate to the Maryland General Assembly.

Not much is known about the life and times of Mr. de Sousa and what is known is fodder for debate and discussion among historians; but it can be easily argued that Mr. de Sousa was the first American of African decent to be an elected official in Maryland, if not the first of his heritage to be elected to any office in our nation's history. It can also be put forth that he was the first African-American to vote in America.

It was not until after 1663 that people of African decent, who came to Maryland to be sold as personal property, were by law, ("servants") slaves for life. In a curious turn of events, it was not until the following year that slavery was legalized in Maryland. Subsequently, in the 1670s, African-Americans were denied the right to vote. In 1672, the Royal African Company was formed in England and trade in human beings from Africa to Maryland greatly expanded.

As much as Maryland can be proud of the achievements of Mathius de Sousa, the history of the treatment of African-Americans in Maryland and our great nation is otherwise the story of horrific shame.

Accounts vary, but some reference materials suggest that as many as 75 percent of the slaves brought to Maryland either died in transit from Africa or in their first year in Maryland.

Some apologists want you to believe that many of the slaves were treated well and we can certainly pray and hold out hope that they were; however, folklore, legal proceedings, and various published accounts all too often present a picture of terrible hardship and mistreatment.

One needs to look no further than the trial of plantation owner Simon Overzee in 1658. The details of the trial can be found in the Provincial Court Proceedings of 1658.

Mr. Overzee "disciplined" a slave named "Toney" for not working hard enough. Toney was tied to a tree and whipped. According to one synopsis of the proceedings, not comfortable that this was enough punishment, Mr. Overzee then "poured scolding hot lard on Toney's wounds. (tied him up by the wrists) and suspended him in mid-air to dangle for several hours."

Toney subsequently died as a result of this treatment, but the court decided that the action taken by Mr. Overzee was legal because "no one could prove that he had punished Toney more than he was allowed."

A meaningful portion of the present day quality of life in Maryland was built on the backs of African-Americans in bondage. It's about time we talked about that and recognized their work.

Recently, the Virginia legislature approved a resolution that expresses a "profound regret for slavery." In the current session of the Maryland General Assembly, Senate Joint Resolution 6 and House Joint Resolution 4 have been put forth "for the purpose of expressing regret for the role that Maryland played in instituting and maintaining slavery and the discrimination that was slavery's legacy."

Gee, it's about time.

According to Nancy Warner's "Carroll County Maryland - A History 1837-1976," one of the first anti-slavery organizations in the nation was formed in Union Bridge, at the time in Frederick County. "A meeting (was) held in (the) Pipe Creek Meeting House on 22 November 1826 to form the Anti-Slavery Society." It was signed by two of my ancestors, Joseph and Isaac Wright.

Yet as a paradox, when two of other branches of my family, the Grimes and Warfields, married in December 1888, it is hypothecated that those families had previously owned slaves.

For myself, as much as I can be proud that one part of my family was a part of the 1826 "Anti-Slavery Society," if it is true that some of my ancestors did indeed own slaves, then that is something for which I feel ashamed.

Explaining it away by saying it was a practice of the times is unacceptable. It was wrong, plain, and simple. And for that I apologize.

Although we did not personally participate in the past wrongful actions of our ancestors, we can accept personal responsibility today and work hard to heal those wounds.

We cannot change the past; however, in order to go forward to face the challenges which confront us in Maryland, we need all hands on deck. And to do that we need to meaningfully address old wounds.

It need not be divisive or polarizing. To open that door to healing, we need to come together and, at a minimum, apologize. Done correctly it can bring us closer together. It's about time we crossed this river - together. By honestly facing the past, we can embrace the future.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:


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