Editor’s note: We asked author James Johnston to comment on the research he did for his book, From Slave Ship to Harvard, which traces the tribulations and successes of an African American family in Maryland over a 275-year period, from 1736 to 2011. Johnston already wrote about the family on this blog; here’s a look at the rich and varied sources he used to investigate his subjects.
–by James Johnston
I was pleasantly surprised during my research to discover that, contrary to common belief, people did keep black history before the Civil War. This was sometimes done by the unlikeliest of writers. Jacob Engelbrecht of Frederick, Maryland, is an example. He was a tailor and minor politician, the son of a Hessian soldier imprisoned at the Hessian Barracks in Frederick during the American Revolution. Yet his private diary–extending over twenty-two volumes and 59 years in the 19th century–recorded marriages, births, deaths, news, milestones, and ruminations about the segregated white and black communities around him. Short snippets captured the activities of one family that I was interested in, the Hillmans. According to the diary, George Hillman was the “president” of the black community, whatever that meant. Frederick Hillman worked for lawyer William Ross. Ignatius had a plot of land near the paper mill. Aaron died of cholera on September 21, 1832. Each little bit added up. From independent sources, I knew that when Ignatius’s wife Nancy Hillman came into money, she turned to Ross’s son to write her will.
Stories about the man who came to America on a slave ship, Yarrow Mamout of Georgetown, were recorded in the diary of the artist who painted his portrait, Charles Willson Peale, and in an 1816 book David Bailles Warden wrote about the new capital of the United States, A Chorographical and Statistical Description of the District of Columbia. Warden even quoted Yarrow speaking in a rich, poetic, dialect. I found frightening accounts of the deprivation and violence of slavery described by slaves in a variety writings, such as the autobiography of Josiah Henson of Montgomery County, Maryland, a book that Harriet Beecher Stowe relied on in writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
I gleaned additional facts from censuses and from oral histories handed down over 130 years. Newspapers occasionally carried articles about African Americans. The passings of two members of this talented family, Yarrow (his last name) and his daughter-in-law Polly Turner Yarrow, were celebrated with obituaries in white newspapers. At the National Archives, I found records of the lawsuit Nancy Hillman brought in 1841 to recover on a loan of her uncle Yarrow. She won what was perhaps the first damage recovery by an African American in Washington D.C. The Archives also had the Civil War pension records of family member Simon Turner.
Living descendants had material too. Alice Ford Truiett of Baltimore had the Harvard graduation photograph of her father Robert Turner Ford from 1927. He was Simon Turner’s grandson and Polly Yarrow’s great grandnephew. Robert Ford’s niece Cynthia Ford Richardson had a copy of a 1984 interview of him she did for an oral history project. The most surprising family document was an 1847 promissory note, signed with an “X,” and passed on by a generation that obviously could not read its contents.
Black history, more than most history, is like a Seurat painting. Seen up close, it appears to be nothing more than a series of unconnected dots, but once you put the dots together and step back, a picture emerges.