African-American History in Prince George’s County

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Although Maryland did not become a state until 1788, in 1663, Maryland lawmakers passed a law enslaving all African-Americans that were brought into the colony. Before Prince George’s County was founded in 1696, several more laws governing the lives of the slave community were passed. Importation of slaves increased so that by the end of 1750, the inhabitants of Prince George’s County consisted of 40,000 black people to 100,000 white people. Between 1658 and 1710, almost 3 out of 4 slaves lived on farms with 20 or fewer slaves, while half lived on farms with 10 or fewer, and nearly a third lived on farms with five or fewer. Because of the influx of slaves from various parts of Africa and the allocation throughout the county, the social and cultural traditions of the slave communities were unique and distinct. By 1730, slaves born in Maryland outnumbered the amount of Africans imported to the state.

With large plantations and small farms employing slave labor to work their lands, slave houses were a fundamental part of the landscape of Prince George’s County during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The highest proportion of slaves on the plantations lived in these slave houses which they themselves built. In addition to the slave houses, visitors to these areas would have found wood piles, outhouses and even a garden and pen to hold chickens raised by the slaves. Most likely, African slaves in Maryland continued the traditional construction methods from the part of Africa they were descended. According to George McDaniel, slaves were an integral part of Maryland history that “without them the history of Maryland, the South, and America would have been dramatically different.”35 Cultural practices most likely came from the native land of the enslaved and would have been passed from generation to generation. Objects such as baskets, traditions such as religion, and musical instruments, such as drums and the “banjar” or banjo, were taught to younger slaves by their elders. Even farming techniques that the Africans used in their native land were shared and employed in Maryland and other colonies.

While tobacco was the main crop grown by the planters and plowed by the slaves, by the nineteenth century, new crops were introduced. As a thriving county in the nineteenth century, Prince George’s benefited from the diversity of the new agriculture endeavors. Prince George’s County grew more tobacco and required more slaves to work in the fields than any other county in Maryland. By the 1860’s, with 90% of the black community in Prince George’s County enslaved, the prosperity would continue, at least for awhile, until the beginning of the Civil War. With many of the leading families in the County owning slaves and half the population of the county being enslaved, the Civil War would greatly impact Prince George’s County and abolish the plantation society.

The Underground Railroad operated predominately in the Upper South and the North, including Maryland and Prince George’s County. Prince George’s County served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. This well-organized system helped slaves in Maryland to travel to Philadelphia or Canada and eventually gain their freedom. Fugitive slaves used networks of shelters among black communities that effectively made up an “underground network of committees, stations, and information.”36

By 1860, most enslaved African Americans found ways of coping with slavery. They used strategies to allow themselves to have lives beyond the reach of the master and to reach beyond the daily experience of bondage. The strategies that the enslaved used to transcend their experiences of slavery was not to allow it to completely determine personal worth and values, differed depending partly on the work they did and where they lived.

After the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery in Maryland in November of 1863, the former slaves could begin to work for themselves. Since Maryland had been a border state and had not seceded from the union, the government had not taken possession of the plantations, so freed blacks were left to find other ways to acquire land from the white landowners. What emerged was land ownership and “though a minority, black landowners were present throughout Maryland and the South in the post-bellum nineteenth century.”37 Changes in landownership signaled the end of the large tobacco plantations and breakup of these plantations into smaller landholdings of two to ten acres of the tobacco crop. With the end of slavery, many of the ex-slaves became farmers of their own land, built houses of their own, and reached out to live in communities with white landowners, while still others joined with other blacks to form their own neighborhoods.

Although the white population still did not see blacks as equal to whites, they had no problems with selling portions of their land to blacks they deemed acceptable to them. These were probably blacks known to them or former slaves of the family. With the fortunate location of the Potomac River, many of the now freed slaves used their acquired skills as watermen. They were able to operate their own boats or work for others to earn a living by using skills acquired under slavery by catching fish and other sea foods like oysters, clams and crabs. Now that African Americans were owners of their own land, they were able to take control over the building of their homes. The houses began to take on a middle-class look with the ethnicity of African culture. But these houses were not isolated; they were in communities and as before under slavery, the free blacks continued to provide help and support to one another.

Prince George’s County is the most affluent county in the United States for African Americans.38 In 2007, the percentage of blacks living in Prince George’s County was 62.7%, with the White Non-Hispanic population next with a percentage of 27.0%. In the early 1980’s, African Americans began building communities around the perimeter of the District of Columbia. Many people commute to Washington, but live in Prince George’s County, away from the city. Preserving the history of the black community in the County has taken a back seat to that of non blacks, but this is changing as more of the descendants of former slaves are researching their family history. In addition, Prince George’s County has the gratification of having the first African American county executive and first African American representative from Maryland. According to Bianca Floyd, “If you want to see African American history past in the making, you should come to [Prince George's County].”39

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