The Price of Freedom: Life in Berks County After the Emancipation Act

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From the Berks History Center Research Library Manuscript Collection

In 1780, Pennsylvania passed a gradual emancipation act. The act marked the start of the decline of slavery in the state. Still, the act’s specifics were more gradual than immediate, which created a system that allowed slavery to persist in this state. There were slaves in Berks County just like many other places in the state. Like elsewhere these enslaved people struggled to gain that freedom.

In 1796, an eight year old African American girl named Margaret was sold to Thomas Boyd for the sum of forty pounds. More than likely, Margaret worked as a domestic servant taking care of her master’s house. What is striking about Margaret’s case was that slaves were, in 1780, not allowed to be imported into the state and everyone born in Pennsylvania after 1780 was not to be considered a slave but indentured. Despite these regulations, Margaret was clearly considered a slave by Boyd in this document.

After many years of unsanctioned enslavement, Margaret gained her freedom in 1816. But, the bill of sale suggests that she did so at a steep price. The bill states that between 1816 and 1819 Margaret paid $117.75 for her freedom. This cost her almost three times her original sale price in 1796. Like so many others, Margaret bought freedom at an inflated price when she should have already been free. All enslaved people were supposed to be freed at the age of 28 in Pennsylvania. In 1816, Margaret reached the age of 28. This document clearly shows the extent to which black Americans went to better their lives in a society that constantly attempted to cripple their advancement.     

Written by guest blogger, Sean Anderson as part of a project funded by the National Endowment for Humanities entitled: Metadata, Marketing, and a Local Archive: Creating Popular Interest from Archival Sources at the Berks History Center Research Library.

Welcome Guest Blogger: Sean Anderson

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Just in time for American Archives Month, the Berks History Center welcomes guest blogger, Sean Anderson. Sean will be contributing to the Berks History Center’s blog as part of a project funded by the National Endowment for Humanities entitled: Metadata, Marketing, and a Local Archive: Creating Popular Interest from Archival Sources at the Berks History Center Research Library.

Sean Anderson grew up in New Tripoli, PA and now lives in Schuylkill Haven, PA. He is currently enrolled in a Ph.D. program in History at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA where he is focusing on the cultural history of the French Caribbean in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century (slavery, colonialism, rebellion, revolution). In particular, he is researching the impact that the Creole religion (Vodou) had on the formation of the Haitian Revolution in 1789. Sean’s research methodology includes looking at the religious rituals, dances, and fashion of enslaved people, which will be the topic of his dissertation. Sean also holds a B.A. in Anthropology from Muhlenberg College and an M.A in History from Lehigh University.

Sean’s project involves creating creative content from the BHC Research Library in order to entice people to visit the History Center. For the last couple months, Sean has been using the archival materials at the Berks History Center to develop the content for his BHC blog articles.  All of his blog posts are based on specific documents found in the BHC Research Library’s archival collections. Sean’s blog articles can be found here on the BHC blog page, Keeper of Berks County’s History Mysteries, and the BHC’s social media pages including facebook, Twitter, and instagram. Follow the Berks History Center @berkshistory on social media.

Sean said, “The project is a way for me to learn more about the local history of the area while using my knowledge of Atlantic History to connect that local history to broader Atlantic and U.S. historical processes.”

In addition to spending most of his time working on his dissertation, Sean plays quite a bit of soccer in various men’s leagues in the Lehigh Valley. He also works part-time as a sound technician, plays guitar, and, in a former life, worked as a brewer.

First Impressions

From the Collection of the Henry Janssen Library, Historical Society of Berks County

 

When I first started at the Historical Society, the curator was working on the World War I & World War II exhibit.  Even though the archives was not asked to participate, curiosity got the best of me and I went in search of images that could have been used for the exhibit.  The one above has been and still remains today to be one of my favorite images in our collection.

The Henry Janssen Library has over 20,000 images in its collection (probably more) and we have started the monumental task of digitizing all of the images for preservation and accessibility.  This project, like most of our inventorying projects, will take years to do because we can only work on the photographs when time, volunteers and money for supplies permit it.  There are other rare gems in our collection and I cannot wait to see them.

Regardless, choosing this picture is not why I am blogging about it.  In a few weeks, the library will be hosting a Senior Seminar from Albright College.  During their time here, I have to teach Seniors in the History Department the difference between primary and secondary resources.  When I first hosted this professor and she explained the premiss of the visit, I asked myself…”Shouldn’t they already know the difference?”  Apparently not.  Instead of concentrating on the differences, I focus on their uses.  It’s the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How of History.  How would you use a letter, map, deed, a newspaper or a photograph to interpret or enhance your history?  Better yet…what is the story these items tell you?

Every time I look at this image, which up until six months ago was hanging on my door, I keep getting different answers.  I originally hung the copy up to try and scare people off from constantly parading through my office.  During World War I, this image probably did illicit fear, fear of poison gas, death in the trenches, or about war in general.  It mostly gave people a chuckle as the entered or left my office.  Today, looking at this image, I imagine what those men were thinking.  “This is the only photograph I’ve ever had and no one is going to see my face.”  “You want us to do what, pose with our gear on?  Why?”  “UGH!  This is so hot when will this be done?”  I like the soldier on the far left, who seems to be slouched like “maybe if I make myself smaller, no one will notice?”

Photographs tell stories as well as document a moment in time.  Looking back through your photographs, what do those images tell you?  What stories can you see, envision, or relate?  Most importantly, how does that image tell your history?

Note: The US National Archives Facebook pages host a weekly caption contest.  They post a unique image from their collection and ask their “friends” to come up with the best caption to describe that image.  My personal favorite was a group on men kneeling by beavers, that were on leashes.  Look for it, they might have it archived on their site.  It is a fun and interesting way to look at the photographs.  If you had to pick a caption for the above image, what would it be?