A Slave's Place
A single grave speaks volumes about the place of slaves in Maryland history.
On a windy stretch of country road in Westminster sits a large farmhouse, its imposing stone exterior a testament to the talent of the men who built this home more than 230 years ago. Next to the house, close to the road, and so unobtrusive as to almost go unnoticed, there is a single grave. The epitaph announces:
Faithful slave. Two simple words, chiseled into the stone, convey an emotional impact infinitely greater than the simple structure of the phrase. Upon greater reflection, one realizes that what is missing speaks as loudly as what is there. No date of birth is inscribed. And no graves surround Elizabeth's.
Farther along this bucolic stretch of roadway lie the graves of Elizabeth’s owners, Francis Groff and his wife Catherine. They are interred in the beautiful cemetery of St. Mary’s Church, their eternal sleep comforted by the graves of the family members beside them.
The relationship between Elizabeth and the Groffs is certainly more complex than the vague details provided by historical records. Census data indicates that Francis Groff owned Elizabeth from the early 1800s through at least the mid-1840s, for probable use as a house slave and helpmate to Catherine, since Francis and Catherine had no children. That the Groffs had affection for Elizabeth is evidenced by Francis’ will, in which he bequeaths Elizabeth to his wife, and declares she is to go free after Catherine's death. The wording in this portion of the document states:
"To a Female Negro Slave Named Elizabeth Horn whom is by the Last Will and Testament of Francis Groff Deceased Bequeathed to his Wife Catherine Groff for and During the Period of her Natural Life And by said will Manumit Liberate and set free said female Negro Slave From and After the Death of my wife, In Manner and Full and ample and Affectual manner as though she said Elizabeth Horn Negro Slave had been Born Free………$300.00"
It doesn't seem that Elizabeth ever collected this money, certainly a large sum for a recently emancipated woman of color. There are no manumission records in Carroll County that detail the freeing of Elizabeth Horn. And Elizabeth seems to have moved away from the family for a time as she is not listed in the 1850 Census or the 1850 Slave Schedule for this district.
For whatever reason, Elizabeth was not with the Groffs for part or all of the 1850s, but by the 1860s she had returned to the family. And by 1865 she was dead at the approximate age of 65 (as calculated from the Carroll County tax assessments).
I imagine Catherine Groff was responsible for the headstone and its message, both unlikely luxuries afforded to slaves, even during this time of emancipation. And this epitaph might have seemed a warm sentiment at the time, although to my modern eyes it is fitting for a pet's grave at best.
As a mother, my heart aches as I stand before Elizabeth's chipped grey headstone. I ache for Elizabeth as a child, without claim to a birthdate, growing up minus the presence of one or both of her parents, as records at the time indicate the Groffs only owned a few slaves. My heart aches for Elizabeth as an adult, who may or may not have had children, a fact locked in a past that didn't consider her life valuable enough to document. Finally, I mourn for Elizabeth in death, who had so little claim to her own life that her epitaph speaks mainly of her owners.
For all I know, Elizabeth returned to the Groffs by her own free will, and requested that she be buried near the home. This possibility saddens me further, as I think of the woman she might have been, had circumstances been different.
As Black History Month comes to a close, it is important for all of us, black and white, to reflect on the important contribution this group of Americans made to our nation's growth. To separate ourselves from the current racial issues and pay homage to the original Americans from Africa who helped shape this country.
To make sure a slave's place is moved into our collective memory, far from a solitary grave on a quiet country road in Westminster.
Author's note: I encourage all Patch readers to visit an amazing (and free!) exhibit currently running at UMBC's Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery. The exhibit, entitled "Passage on the Underground Railroad", will be displayed through March 22, 2012. For seven years, artist Stephen Marc photographed the routes traveled by fugitive slaves along the Underground Railroad. Through Marc's thought-provoking and haunting collages of digital images, he shares the results of his explorations. For hours and more information, visit the library gallery's website.