This is a guest post by Maureen S. Thompson, PhD, who participated in the Fall 2023 Archives, History and Heritage Advanced Internship Program (AHHA) in the Manuscript Division.
How did one influential nineteenth-century family consider the end of slavery while simultaneously enslaving people? The relevance of the Blair Family Papers at the Library of Congress lies at the intersection of slavery and politics in the nation’s capital.
Francis Preston Blair and his wife, Eliza Gist Blair, had six children, four of whom lived to adulthood: Montgomery, Elizabeth (“Lizzie”), James, and Francis Preston Blair, Jr. (“Frank”). Additionally, their extended kin were located throughout numerous states. In 1830, the Blair family relocated from Kentucky to Washington, D.C., where they published the Washington Globe newspaper in support of President Andrew Jackson’s administration. In 1836, the Blairs established a household on Pennsylvania Avenue, across the street from the White House. There, family members interacted frequently with United States presidents, cabinet members, and congressional lawmakers. In 1845, the Blairs built a twenty-room residence they named “Silver Spring,” in Maryland, which was also a hub of political activity.
My task as an Archives, History and Heritage Advanced Internship Program (AHHA) intern working on the “Discovering African Americans in the Blair Family Papers” project was to search for examples of enslaved and free African Americans in the collection. My mentor, historian Michelle Krowl, explained this internship should be considered an “experiment” to see what I could discover, as well as what I couldn’t. To focus my search, Michelle and I speculated that women in that era handled domestic duties and would likely correspond about enslaved workers and servants. As expected, I discovered numerous examples in women’s correspondence, but also in wills and business transactions between men.
Several documents stand out as examples of how the Blairs and their extended family considered enslaved persons in both economic and human terms. In 1819, Eliza Blair’s sister, Maria Gist, married former Philadelphian Benjamin Gratz, who had moved to Kentucky three years prior. Dividing an 1834 inheritance between family members and acquaintances, Benjamin Gratz recorded the names, ages, and market values associated with each person his extended family enslaved. One of the two individuals named Beverly associated with Maria Gratz’s name on this list is mentioned by her in a letter dated July 10 (no year stated) she wrote to her niece Elizabeth Blair. Maria stated, “I have had a very sick household. Three servants for the last month and my favorite, Beverly, with a fever that has killed so many people, and puts them out of their senses; he is now relieved of that and all we have to do is feed him so he may not sink.”
The 1855 will of Lucy Buckner, the mother of Montgomery Blair’s first wife, Caroline Buckner Blair, listed more than thirty enslaved persons bequeathed to inheritors. Designations included “House Judy” and “Black Judy” to distinguish between individuals with identical names, as surnames were often not acknowledged or were assumed to be the enslaver’s last name. Despite my training as a historian of the United States and a familiarity with the history of slavery, I had a visceral reaction upon reading that Buckner’s heirs would inherit “the future increase of said females [enslaved persons]” as I realized future generations were sentenced to a life of servitude prior to their actual conception and birth. Maria Gratz’s letter portrays a human connection, however unequal or imperfect, by naming Beverly as her “favorite,” whereas Lucy Buckner’s will conveys the stark economic and transactional nature of enslaved people as property.
Fortunately, I discovered a few stories with positive resolutions, including an announcement for a fundraiser held to purchase the freedom of a chambermaid named Rebecca Smith, who attended Montgomery Blair’s second wife, Minna. Although no year was stated on the invitation, the fundraiser was likely held sometime before April 1862.
Public sales of enslaved persons in Washington, D.C., ended with the Compromise of 1850, and on April 16, 1862, slavery was abolished in the nation’s capital. Washington, D.C., was the only region of the United States in which enslavers were compensated by the Treasury Department for their “property” loss. Approximately 900 enslavers, including F. P. Blair, were paid an average of $300 each for their enslaved workers. Listed as case 483 in Emancipation in the District of Columbia, Blair received $306.60 for Sarah Solomons and $219.00 for Mary Simms, sadly valuing their worth only in terms of the estimated amount of labor they could provide.
The AHHA internship was a ten-week endeavor, and I was only able to read a fraction of the Blair correspondence. Still, I consider this “experiment” successful as I accomplished the major goals Michelle Krowl and I established in our initial meeting. A number of African Americans in the Blair Family Papers have been identified and their individual stories now await further research. The Blair Family Papers are available online for exploration on the many individuals and subjects contained therein.
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In 1845… The community of Silver Spring, Maryland, took its name from the Blair residence, “Silver Spring.”