School Improvement in Maryland
Clarifications: Each clarification provides an explanation of an indicator/objective to help teachers better understand the skills and/or concepts.

Standard 5.0 History

Topic C. Conflict between Ideas and Institutions

Indicator 4. Analyze how the institution of slavery impacted individuals and groups in Maryland

Objective a. Compare the lives of slave families and free blacks


Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, the lives of African Americans, enslaved and free, were characterized by severe hardship and discrimination.

For enslaved African Americans, the fact that they were not free dictated everything else in their lives. They did not control their own labor. The type of work they performed, as well as how and when they did it, were determined by their master, and they received no monetary compensation. Slaveowners supplied enslaved African Americans with their meager material provisions, including a small house (usually made of logs with a dirt floor), a few articles of coarse clothing, and basic food. Often enslaved people supplemented their diets by fishing or growing vegetables in small garden plots and furnished their houses with a few pieces of simple, handmade furniture. The master even controlled family relationships among enslaved people. Enslaved couples could not legally marry, often lived on different plantations, and frequently had to endure white men's sexual attacks on enslaved women. Physical punishment was common. While laws did exist to regulate the treatment of slaves, in practice these laws were seldom enforced, and enslaved people had no legal rights, including the right to sue or testify in court.

Amazingly, enslaved African Americans managed to find small but important ways to control elements of their lives. Family, friends, and religion provided a source of comfort and hope. Also, elements of African culture were incorporated into slave culture. Enslaved people resisted white control through a variety of methods, including work slowdowns, feigned illnesses, theft from storehouses, and occasionally escape and rebellion.

It is important to note that slavery in Maryland, as in other border states, was different from slavery in the Deep South. Slavery was firmly entrenched on the plantations of Southern Maryland, but, by the early nineteenth century, it was on the decline in the northern and western portions of the state, where the soil and climate favored the cultivation of wheat rather than labor-intensive tobacco, and even on the Eastern Shore. As a result, the state's free black population was larger than any other state's. According to the 1860 census, if you remove Baltimore County and City's numbers from the totals, there were two free blacks for every three slaves statewide. In Baltimore City and County, free blacks outnumbered enslaved blacks by more than 5 to 1. In fact, Baltimore City's free black community was the largest of any city in the nation and boasted its own churches and schools. The presence of so many free blacks helped to mitigate the experience of slavery in Maryland. Maryland slaveowners tended to be milder masters than those farther South. First, they knew that the proximity of the Mason-Dixon Line made escape attractive to and possible for many slaves. Second, they feared that harsh treatment of slaves might anger the state's many non-slaveholders and jeopardize the institution of slavery itself or the political power of plantation owners. Conditions for slaves were best in Baltimore, where many enslaved African Americans were able to mingle with, work with, and often live among, free blacks. In some cases, plantation owners hired slaves out to work in Baltimore, where the enslaved blacks would live on their own and sometimes even arrange their own employment, paying their owner a high percentage of their wages. It was a degree of freedom a plantation slave would never know.

Maryland's free blacks found themselves precariously perched between free white society and enslaved African American society. Often they were of mixed white and black ancestry and/or the descendants of slaves freed by the Revolutionary generation. Many free blacks lived in towns and cities, attracted by job opportunities and the presence of other free blacks. Still, even in Baltimore, almost all of the jobs open to free blacks, involved manual labor. In rural areas, most free blacks were farm laborers or tenant farmers. Some free African Americans both in Baltimore and elsewhere were able to prosper as artisans, such as shoemakers or blacksmiths, or as shopkeepers, but their numbers were small. Often, living conditions for free African Americans were poor. Many times they lived along narrow, dirty alleys. As a result of such conditions, the mortality rate of free blacks in Baltimore was higher than any other social group. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, restrictions on free blacks increased significantly in response to white Southerners' fears that free blacks would inspire and/or assist enslaved people to escape or revolt. Free blacks had to carry their free papers with them at all times, had limited rights of assembly and no rights to vote or hold office, and had to be licensed to work.

Despite all of these obstacles, however, free blacks in Baltimore were able to forge a vibrant community. They founded numerous churches and mutual aid or insurance societies and even two banks. Perhaps most importantly, they established about fifteen schools in the city in the hopes of providing their children with skills that would open up new opportunities.

Resources for Objective 5.C.4.a: