By Peter J. Albert
Who were our earliest African American brothers and sisters here in the parish during its founding years? Were they all enslaved? The names Liddy and Lucy Butler and Anne Marie Becraft are familiar, (1) but who else was here? One place to look for an answer is in Holy Trinity’s sacramental registers — the chronological list of baptisms and marriages kept in the parish archives.
The first entry in our registers, for example, records the marriage of Philis, an enslaved woman, to David Thomas, a free Black man. (Editor’s note: The spelling, capitalization, and punctuation in the transcriptions that follow are rendered as found in the original): (2)
January 1 – 1795
Married in the College chapel David Thomas to Philis a negro slave property of Elizabeth Doyle of G. Town –
Witnesses James Byrne –
Following in the register are the names of other enslaved men and women, and their enslavers, in entries like these: (3)
John son of Charles slave property of Masum Waring George Town –
February 15 – 1795 –
idem Die [same day] Antony Baptized son of Catherine a slave property of Dolly Barber – near G.T. –
In the baptismal registers between 1795 to 1815, over 200 of the children’s parents are designated as enslaved. (5) Coupled with their names — as in the examples above, from 1795, and this one, from 1815 — are the names of over 100 of their enslavers: (6)
June 18.1815. Baptised Jane black daughr of Math. and Jany belgng to Bp. Neale [ . . . ] God Mother Mary of Mr Franck Fanwick
Nor are all the African Americans named in the registers designated as either enslaved or free. For example: (7)
17 April 1813 Baptized Mary Sarah an affrican woman about 60 years of age – God Mother Patience Smith
14 june 1813 babtized William born first of march Son of William and Sara biclett godmother henrietta devis of this town Colored people all
And sometimes the priest making an entry in the register simply did not indicate that the persons he was naming were Black, so there are more African Americans named in the registers than it would at first appear.
The registers suggest that in the case of a quarter or more of the 200 enslaved parents (between 25 and 30 of the couples), the two partners were held by different enslavers.
The registers from 1795 to 1815 also designate some 60 Black parents as free. Of the 41 baptisms listing free Black parents, 19 designate both parents as free. For example: (9)
April 4 . Baptized Charles Thomas born February 27, 1798 of Gustavus & Patty Thomas free negros living George Town
Sponsors George Tibore
1812 – February 23. Baptized William Henry born December 3d 1811 of Thomas & Ann Robertson free living in George Town
God Mother Henrietta
The same day [Oct. 15, 1815] Baptised Mary Ann black daughter of Ruben and Nancy Holly free of G.T. [born] June 11th. 1815. God Mother Monica Shoter.
And of the 41, 11 list only the free mother on the baptismal record. For example: (10) May 17. 1795 Mary Ann Adams born 28th March 1795 of – Liddy Adams St Mary County now in George Town a negro woman free
Liddy Butler God Mother
Steven a slave God Father
Or here: (11)
8 Oct  baptized elizabeth born 7 Sept: daughter of Maria Thomas free father a fugitive not married
Of the remaining 11 baptisms involving partners designated as free, only one parent was free, the other enslaved. Seven of these relationships involve a free father and an enslaved mother: (12)
February 26. 1797
Baptized Jarad a slave born of Gustavus Butler, a free man, & Linder slave servt to Mr Arnold Newton G.T. The child born 30 January 1797.
God Mother Lucy Butler
20th Augt 1797 – Was baptised Maria Elisa black girl lawful Daughter of Thomas free negro and Phenissa slave of Mr. Adam King, about a month old – God mother Lucy Butler free negro woman.
July 29. 1798 Baptized Milly about 2 months old Daughter of John free man & Briget slave (Mastr. Butler)
God Mother Elizabeth Butler
May 26. 1799 Baptized Elizebeth lawful Daughter of William & Terry the latter a slave (property of Thos. Bertley George Town)
God Mother Sarah slave
eodem die [June 7. 1800] Baptized Hariot born May 3. 1800 of David Thomas free man & Philis slave. Propty of Adam King
God Mother Catherine Dingo
July 21 1805. Baptized John born June last of John Thompson a free Mulatto & Clare a slave of Joseph Simmes
God Mother Catherine / free woman
April 26. 1807 – Christened Sarah Ann born April 1806 (Batized by Bishop Neale.) Father named David Thomas a free man. Mother Philis slave property of Adam King
God Mother Henny Ware
The remaining four baptisms involve a father designated as enslaved and a mother designated as free: (13)
[c. Sept. 11, 1803] Thomas born 20 June 1803 of Thomas slave & Ann Robison a free woman
Sponsors George & Patience Tibourd
[February] 16  Baptized Henry Smith (Col’d) born January 19, 1806 of Thomas & Racheal Smith the father a slave property of the estate of Wm Digges the mother a free woman
God Mother Violet
August 3d  Baptized Samuel born 2d July Son of Ben belong. to Mr P. Key, & Eleanor formerly belonging to Mrs Lee, now free.
College Lucky Godmother
7 April.  baptized John Silicy Son of John Slicy belonging to Mr Clarke, and of Betzy Slicy free, born last good Fridy. God Mother Liddy Buttler
Also of significance here are the godparents, usually godmothers, slave or free, whose names often signified important relationships — “fictive kin networks” — insuring ongoing care of children in case of their separation from parents. (14) It was not unusual for the same woman to be named a godmother in multiple baptisms — between 1795 and 1815, Patience Tibore was named a godmother in 14, Lucy Butler in 20, and Liddy Butler in 25.
These names on the fading pages in our parish archives may be the only traces we now have of the lives of some of these African American co-founders of our parish, although further research may perhaps bring more information to light. Occasionally a name recurs — David Thomas and Philis, for example, appear both in the marriage register and, as parents, in the record of two of the baptisms, and Lucy and Liddy Butler served repeatedly as godmothers. Few of them appear in the federal censuses, however – only four, for example, are in the 1800 census: Gustavus Thomas, Ruben Holly, John Thompson, and Thomas Robertson. The enslaved were not named in early censuses – the enslaver’s name was given, but the enslaved were represented only by anonymous hash marks.
The silence of our records suggests the words of Patrick Modiano in accepting the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature: “Memory is…engaged…in a constant struggle against amnesia and oblivion. This layer, this mass of oblivion that obscures everything, means we can only pick up fragments of the past, disconnected traces, fleeting and almost ungraspable human destinies. Yet it has to be the vocation of the novelist [and the historian?], when faced with this large blank page of oblivion, to make a few faded words visible again, like lost icebergs adrift on the surface of the ocean.”
1 See Bernard Cook, “Holy Trinity History, Pt. IV: The Butler Sisters”; Duane Nystrom, “Mystery on Holy Hill.”
2 Holy Trinity Church, Marriages and Baptisms, 1795-1805, Digital Georgetown Manuscripts Collection, Georgetown University Library, Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Washington, D.C., p. 1.
3 Ibid., p. 3.
5. Down to 1862, the Slavery Code of the District of Columbia contained a provision, first enacted in Maryland in 1671 and later continued in force in the District, that “no negro or negroes, by receiving the holy sacrament of baptism, is thereby manumitted or set free, nor hath any right or title to freedom or manumission” (Washington, D.C., 1862), p. 19. See also Archives of Maryland II, “Session Laws, March-April 1671,” p. 272.
6 Holy Trinity Church, Baptisms, 1805-1834, Digital Georgetown Manuscripts Collection, Georgetown University Library, Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Washington, D.C., p. 58. Additional baptisms are recorded in Holy Trinity Church, Marriages, 1806-1871, Digital Georgetown Manuscripts Collection, Georgetown University Library, Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Washington, D.C.
7 Baptisms, 1805-1834, p. 46 verso.
8 Ibid., p. 48.
9 Marriages and Baptisms, 1795-1805, p. 39; Baptisms, 1805-1834, p. 41 verso, p. 59 verso.
10 Marriages and Baptisms, 1795-1805, p. 6.
11 Baptisms, 1805-1834, p. 55 verso.
12 Marriages and Baptisms, 1795-1805, pp. 18, 25, 41, 50, 87; Baptisms, 1805-1834, pp. 31, 25.
13 Marriages and Baptisms, 1795-1805, p. 106; Baptisms, 1805-1834, pp. 22, 30, 42.
14 Mary Elizabeth Corrigan, “A Social Union of Heart and Effort: The African-American Family in the District of Columbia on the Eve of Emancipation,” Ph.D. dissertation, 1996, University of Maryland, p. 274.