- Finding Charity’s Folk: Enslaved and Free Black Women in Maryland by Jessica Millward
At first glance the title, Finding Charity’s Folk, suggests that the monograph will focus on reuniting the loved ones of an enslaved woman, Charity, born in Maryland circa 1759. However, the deeply researched study is more generally about the historical location and position of black women, or “folk,” whose legal savvy and assistance from others helped them navigate from slavery to freedom before the Civil War. Jessica Millward channels the narrative through a prism pointed at Charity Folks, who along with her five children and their children made the transition from slavery to freedom while she acquired real and personal property in Annapolis that did much to secure their freedom and legacy.
Finding Charity’s Folk is a slim four-chapter volume of less than seventy-five pages of text, excluding the acknowledgments, prologue, and epilogue. Rather than a biography, it is a social history resulting from more than a decade of research involving the examination of over one thousand manuscripts archived in the United States, England, and Africa. When describing her own work, Millward writes:
This study focuses chiefly on two aspects of how enslaved people defined freedom. The first is grounded in the historically specific circumstances of enslaved women, exploring their experiences and suggesting ways that using the archive of Charity’s life can move our discussion of the lives of enslaved women and their long struggles for freedom in new directions. The second involved an investigation of the meanings of mobility and its impact on the autonomy of enslaved and ex-slave women’s lives.(2)
More specifically, chapter 1, “Reproduction and Motherhood,” presents a two-pronged approach. First, it examines how bondwomen stretched the boundaries of slavery and exercised what autonomy was available to them as mothers. Second, it “investigates how enslaved women’s sexual experiences shaped their choices, their sense of identity, and the ways they reared [End Page 236] their children” (12). “This chapter,” the author continues, “is particularly attuned to resistance and agency as it relates to enslaved mothers” (14).
“The Act to Ascertain and Declare the Condition of Such Issue as May Herein Be Born of Negro or Mulatto Female Slaves,” promulgated by Maryland lawmakers in 1809, serves as the backdrop for chapter 2, “Beyond Charity,” which focuses on the legal acquisition and protection of freedom by women other than Charity Folks. Using Saidiya Hartman’s concept of “afterlife of slavery,” Millward attempts to answer questions about the lives of freed women who remained surrounded and sometimes haunted by slavery. Chapter 3, “Commodities and Kin,” is primarily about black Marylanders buying loved ones to unite families, but redirects its attention to Charity Folks to determine the representative nature of her experiences and those of her family. Also, the chapter promises to answer whether Folks’s experiences were typical or atypical. Finally, the fourth chapter, “Moving Slavery, Shaping Freedom,” provides an examination of free black households, including Charity Folks’s, and how the women in their own abodes protected their offspring legally.
A sustaining argument throughout Finding Charity’s Folk maintains that enslavement and emancipation were “tied to the womb,” thus creating an intricate knot between women and their offspring. Also bound up with this mass of humanity was the quest for freedom, family, and property. Charity Folks achieved these goals (1). She, unlike some African Americans in Maryland who entered lengthy and costly litigation or contentious fights with owners or heirs for their own freedom or that of their children, became free without an apparent legal struggle. Although the author writes, “Charity Folks ultimately negotiated freedom for her children in the sort of unrecorded transactions that were far more common than formal legal manumissions,” that is not clear (26). However, it is clear that in 1797, John Ridout bequeathed Charity, a “faithful servant,” to his wife, Mary Ogle Ridout, and “outlined his intention to free any of Charity’s children in bondage” (42). Two months following his death, the widowed Mary...