By Peter J. Albert
Tu quis es? Who art thou?
I am a Servant, a Slave for Life.
Rejoice! . . .
If you were only sensible of yr happiness,
well contented with yr condition!
You are free from innumerable cares of the world
& supposing you live in a regular Christian Family
art in an easy road to eternal felicity in the world to come.
(from a sermon to enslaved African Americans
given by John Lewis, S.J., Annapolis, Md., 1761)
Holy Trinity’s sacramental registers – chronological lists of baptisms and marriages kept in our archives – give us a rich access to the lives and voices of our founders in faith at this parish. The entries recording African American marriages in these early registers follow a set formula: date; the couple’s names and perhaps a note indicating their race, if Black, and their status – enslaved or free; if enslaved, mention of the person who claimed them and had licensed their marriage; lastly, names of the witnesses. Take this entry, for example (Editor’s note: The spelling, capitalization, and punctuation in the transcriptions that follow are rendered as found in the original): (1)
April 6th 1795
Married Nancy slave property of Wm Digges to Benjimen slave property of Mr Notton with licence from their Masters.
F. N. – (2)
witnesses Jack a slave
The standard formula for arranging this information was soon modified slightly, with the permissions of enslavers being noted earlier in the entry, even before the names of the couple being married: (3)
[n.d.] with Licence from respective proprieter[s] Married Jerry, slave of J. Theldkeld, to Margaret slave of Ann Sanders, before Many Witnesses –
Margaret slave of Ann Sanders
Grand Mother of the bride
Examples of licenses to marry can be viewed online at the Georgetown Slavery Archive site. This one, for example, dates from 1831: (4)
Washington Augt. 22-1831
Reverend Sir, The bearer William Correy have my permitson to get married to the woman belonging to Miss Eliason
I give full permission to the above William to marry my servant woman Mary Coffee.
The importance of permission to marry – and the importance, too, of sanction of marriages by the Church – is evident in the recurrence of the enslaved among the African Americans listed in Holy Trinity’s early marriage registers. Of the 54 marriages involving Black couples recorded in the registers between 1795 and 1815, 38 (70%) were between enslaved people, and nine more (17%) were between an enslaved and a free African American. Only seven (13%) were between two free Black individuals – “Nigri sed liberi” (Black but free) as carefully noted in one of the entries. (5)
If enslaved African Americans might seek permission to marry in the Church, some enslavers might hesitate to sanction church weddings, since “church recognition of slave marriages subsequently bolstered the claims of slaves as they bargained for privileges to maintain their relationships with their spouses.” (6) Where permissions could be secured, they were carefully stipulated in the record of the marriage. For example: (7)
Novr 16 1800
Married with licence from respective Masters Joseph property of J. Theldkeld
Susana property of Wm Keech
before many witnesses slaves
Rebecca &c –
The witnesses of record at these marriages were usually Black, although former enslavers might also serve: (8)
eodem Die [April 9, 1804] with licence from respective Masters Viz Charles Boarman & George Fenwick Married Sam & Henny before their Masters & many other witnesses
Often, enslaved and free African Americans collaborated as witnesses at marriages: (9)
April 3. 1803 with Licence from their Master James Neville married Richard procter & Liddy Green before these witnesses
Pol – slaves
A number of African Americans served as witnesses at more than one of these marriages. Liddy and Lucy Butler, for example, who appeared so often as sponsors in Holy Trinity’s baptismal records, were called upon again, with Lucy a witness on three occasions and Liddy five times. Various members of the enslaved community at Holy Trinity (Anastasia, Charles, Edward, Milly, Samuel, and Susanna, for example) also apparently served more than once, although this is difficult to establish definitively since only their first names are given in the record.
Members of the bride or groom’s families served as witnesses in at least 9 of these 54 marriages: (10)
April 13, 1800
Married with permission from Master & Mistress Viz Mr Joseph Semmes & Miss Mary Doyne. George. & Monica before the following witnesses
Charles Pater [father] spouse
Anne Mater [mother] spouse
Ralph Butler &c –
Even if enslaved, an entire family or even the larger community might well gather together for a wedding: (11)
May 3d 1801
Married with liberty from Mrs Mary Fenwick her two slaves William & Sarah before the greatest part of ther family –
Or, again: (12)
April 12. Married with liberty from respective owners (Viz Mr Clemt Sewall & Miss Eliza Lee) jerard & lucy before a great number of persons in Trinity Church
as also before Richard Queen.
Ignatius Clarke –
And, as with the marriage of David Thomas and Philis (she was enslaved), and the baptisms of their children Hariot and Sarah Ann, noted in the previous article in this series, (13) one can trace in parish records a number of the births born to these unions. See, for example, Susana and Joseph, married in 1800 (both were enslaved), and their daughter Elizabeth, born in 1801; Sarah and William, married in 1801 (both were enslaved), and their son John, born in 1802; Clair and John Thompson, married in 1801 (she was enslaved), and their son Lewis, born in 1801; Lucy and Gerrard, married in 1807 (both were enslaved), and their sons Henry, born in 1808, and Robert, born in 1811; Violet and Leonard, married in 1807 (both were enslaved), and their daughter Henrietta, born in 1808; and Ann and Moses, married in 1807 (both were enslaved), and their daughter Eleanor, born in 1810. Since the seven mothers mentioned here were all enslaved, all nine of these children were born into slavery.
Holy Trinity’s early sacramental registers offer us precious shards of evidence, fragments of memory from the lives of African American founders of our parish, suggestions of their nascent families, hints of their networks of relationship. Reading in these registers we are only able to see, as it were, through a glass darkly, but the registers do enable us to begin to make out the presence of our Black brothers and sisters from so long ago, the shape of their lives here in our parish.
The author wishes to thank Mary Beth Corrigan, Curator of Collections on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, Georgetown University Library Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., for her generous assistance in providing some of the documentation for this article.
1 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. 5.
2 Francis Neale. Most entries were unsigned. Some were kept separately and then later transcribed into the registers, where they might be preceded by a note such as this one, which dates from 1800: “from the catolouge of the Rt Rd Leond Neale” (ibid., p. 87).
3 Ibid., p. 70.
4 Permissions to Marry, 1831-32, Georgetown University Library, Georgetown Slavery Archive, item 441. In 1816 Bishop Leonard Neale cautioned a priest in Norfolk, Virginia: “You cannot marry Slaves belonging to different masters without first obtaining leave from both & a promis not to seperate man & wife afterwards.” (Leonard Neale, S.J., to Fr. Lucas, Apr. 19, 1816, Georgetown Slavery Archive, item 360).
5 Holy Trinity Church, Marriages, 1806-1871, Digital Georgetown Manuscripts Collection, Georgetown University Library, Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Washington, D.C., p. 3.
6 Mary Beth 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. 247.
7 Marriages and Baptisms, 1795-1805, p. 70.
8 Ibid., p. 112.
9 Ibid., p. 102.
10 Ibid., p. 60.
11 Ibid., p. 77.
12 Marriages, 1806-1871, p. 1.
13 Peter J. Albert, “African American Baptisms at Holy Trinity, 1795-1815,” can be found at “Holy Trinity History” on the Holy Trinity website.