Black History Month 2023 “Certificates of Freedom: Did a piece of paper really make Mary Matthews free?”

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Certificates of Freedom: Did a piece of paper really make Mary Matthews free?

In Maryland’s antebellum period, African Americans who were legally free still had to fear being kidnapped and forced into slavery or detained and jailed. An African American man or woman walking on a street in Annapolis, say down Maryland Avenue past Hammond-Harwood House to the wharf on the Severn, might be confronted with a demand to see their “freedom papers” – meaning their certificate of freedom.

Between 1805 and emancipation in 1864, Maryland’s free blacks were required to prove their status in a county court in order to obtain a certificate of freedom. Even individuals who had been born free, as well as those who had self-purchased their freedom from their former slaveholder, or who had been manumitted needed to carry freedom papers. The explanation for this was that “great mischiefs have arisen from slaves coming into possession of certificates of free Negroes, by running away and passing as free under the faith of such certificates.”

To obtain a certificate of freedom, the individual appeared in court, often with a white witness as to his or her identity. The certificate included a detailed physical description. Mary Matthews, enslaved at Hammond-Harwood House from the time she was about 14, sold to a slave trader in Virginia eight years later, and granted her freedom in 1832, applied for a certificate of freedom. The document was granted on April 19, 1834. She is described as about 25 years old; five feet five inches high, with a brown complexion and small scars on her right cheek and left arm.

The Maryland State Archives holds copies of these certificates.
Volume 823 Index – Anne Arundel County Court Certificates of Freedom, 1810-1831 (

By Barbara Goyette,
Hammond-Harwood House Executive Director

Posted on Feb 10, 2023 in , , , by Hammond-Harwood House



Hammond-Harwood House

The mission of the Hammond-Harwood House Association is to preserve and to interpret the architecturally significant Hammond-Harwood House Museum and its collection of fine and decorative arts, and to explore the diverse social history associated with its occupants, both free and enslaved, for the purposes of education and appreciation.
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