June 19th is Juneteenth, the celebration of emancipation as it reached the final enslaved African Americans in the Confederacy in 1865. It took more than two years for news of Lincoln’s proclamation of 1863 to reach Texas — a stunning foreshadowing of the slow pace racial equality would assume in America. While Juneteenth is a celebration of the pride and determination of African Americans and of achievements in every field of endeavor, it is also a time to recognize and pay tribute to the lives of those enslaved who came before emancipation.
At Hammond-Harwood House, we say their names: Mary Matthews, Matilda Matthews, Juliet — three enslaved women whose lives were lived for many years according to the dictates of the white inhabitants of Hammond-Harwood House.
We currently know very little about the individuals held enslaved at Hammond-Harwood House. Documents like wills, letters, and records of lawsuits provide helpful information. According to the census records, up to seven women, men, and children were enslaved here.
Mary and Matilda Matthews came from the home of Judge Jeremiah and Hester Chase, who had bought the large house now known as Hammond-Harwood House for their daughter Frances, her husband Richard Loockerman, and their children. When Frances’s mother died in 1823, the two sisters were sent to the Loockermans under terms of the will. Mary was about 14, Matilda about 8. Sarah Matthews, mother of Mary and Matilda, remained with the Chases. Soon the enslaved child Matilda was returned to Judge Chase, the reason cited being “no sufficient imployment (sic)”, but when Judge Chase died in 1828, Richard Loockerman sued the estate to claim her again.
Mary and Matilda were essential to the smooth functioning of the Loockerman family, performing a variety of domestic tasks: they cared for the family’s ten children, cleaned the house and did laundry, stoked the fires in every room, lit the lamps at night, emptied the chamber pots, worked in the kitchen garden, helped prepare and serve the meals.
The lives of the Matthews sisters illustrate the unsettled existence of enslaved women and the trauma of separation enslaved families endured. In 1830 Loockerman sold both Matthews sisters to Elias P. Legg, a slave trader. Alexandria was then a center of the slave trade; Legg, a tavern owner, had converted his property to a “slave pen” and together with his partners operated a thriving business buying up enslaved men, women, and children, then selling them for transport farther south. Mary and Matilda were held at his former tavern in Alexandria, Virginia, for several years. By 1832 their mother, Sarah, who had been freed soon after the death of Judge Chase in 1828, was able to petition for their freedom from Legg. They were granted Certificates of Freedom and returned to Annapolis to live.
The story of another of the Loockermans’ enslaved women, Juliet, again reflects the perilous and confusing conditions that African American women endured under slavery. Juliet is mentioned in an 1821 legal complaint. In need of cash, Richard Loockerman mortgaged her to a merchant tailor in Annapolis named Nicholas J.Watkins—one year of Juliet’s service in exchange for a loan of $126.58. After the year passed Juliet returned to the Loockerman household but Richard did not repay the loan. Watkins sued him for the money. We do not know the circumstances, but Watkins withdrew the suit at some point.
Twenty-one years later, a March 1842 letter from the widowed Frances Loockerman provides a clue to understanding what happened to Juliet. Frances wrote to her daughter Hester: “I keep two servants, Juliet went to Baltimore last August for her health and has not returned yet.” Again, the circumstances are unclear: Was Juliet being treated for an illness? Was she living with relatives? Was Frances concerned for Juliet’s well-being? Was Frances regretting loss of the labor Juliet once provided?
The history of Hammond-Harwood House illustrates the depth of complicity in our national attitudes toward race. Racism was born so early, it’s been held in our consciousness. This beautiful house was built with the labor of enslaved men, some of them highly skilled. The families that lived within its walls exploited men, women, and children to perform the work necessary for the gracious life of the 19th century elite. The babies of the enslaved women were welcomed as additions to the wealth of the household. When the family needed cash, a young woman named Juliet was mortgaged out; later, sisters Mary and Matilda Matthews were sold to a slave trader in Alexandria. Their trauma was neither acknowledged nor mediated.
As a democracy, we’re supposed to be flexible in our approaches to problems: if something doesn’t work, try a different way. Vote in a new leader, protest, advocate, write a new law, amend the Constitution. But as a democracy we’re also supposed to hold firm to certain tenets that our founders identified as both universal and essential to being human. The ugly history of slavery should have taught us. At Hammond-Harwood House we’re committed to doing a better job of educating ourselves and presenting history to our visitors.
We have so much to learn.