- Finding Charity's Folk: Enslaved and Free Black Women in Marylandby Jessica Millward
The clever title of Jessica Millward's monograph Finding Charity'sFolk: Enslaved and Free Black Women in Marylandserves the dual purpose of naming the subject, Charity Folks, and, as its play on words promises, examining her surrounding community of women of color, enslaved and free. At a time of a contemporary movement in the United States like "Say Her Name," which recognizes the black women who die as a result of police violence, it is no less fitting, as Millward notes in her book, to "honor enslaved women's call to be remembered by telling their stories and speaking their names" (p. xxi). Millward, an associate professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, revives the memory of Folks, who traversed the distance from enslavement to freedom, and highlights the biographical details of Folks's life while situating her within the larger context of her family and her local community in Annapolis, Maryland. Millward argues that "enslaved women must be seen as architects of their own freedom. Freedom was not bestowed on them; they worked for it" (p. 12). Location made a difference in the experience of enslavement and freedom in determining the size of the free community, access to manumission, and mobility. The sense of place is strongly conveyed in Finding Charity's Folk. During her research Millward visited some of the buildings and other spaces that Folks inhabited during her life as well as her final resting place. She also drew on Folks's descendants to give insights on their matriarch and other family members. Additionally, Millward met with current individuals of the Ridout family, whose ancestors owned Folks and her family. These connections impart an intimacy between the past and present that is often lacking in historical monographs. Millward's efforts to involve the descendant community, coupled with the extensive records from archives in Ghana, Great Britain, and the United States, including over 1,500 manumission records, family papers collections, runaway slave advertisements, letters, wills, and journals, provide ample sources for her study.
There is a strong emphasis on the gendered reality of slavery and freedom throughout the book. Enslaved women seized on whatever means were at their disposal to actualize their own freedom and that of their children and other family members. Indeed, Millward argues that freedom, rather than being exclusively an individual act, was communal. Children were often manumitted with their mothers, or they continued in slavery until a later time. Particularly in her last two chapters, she elaborates on [End Page 409]family and the creative strategies that women used to secure and maintain freedom through a range of activities, including using the courts, participating fully in the labor market to provide a financial cushion for their households, and working proactively to obtain beneficial apprenticeships for their children.
Overall, the book provides an illuminating window on the linking of slavery and freedom for women, and how each shaped the other. One minor criticism is that Millward incorporates other historians' findings directly into the text throughout the four chapters in Finding Charity's Folk. The discussion of secondary work would be more appropriate in her endnotes as it has the effect of diminishing her authoritative voice at times. Aside from that, Millward has succeeded at providing a profound remembrance of Folks and Maryland's other women of color who left a legacy that makes it unlikely they will be "lost to history" (p. 67).