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Lost Lives of London Town: African American Experience at the Almshouse

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

The Lost Lives of London Town series remembers the lives of Africans and African-Americans enslaved in the London Town area. We'll share their stories as best as we know of them. The stories aren't always easy to read, but they are always important.

As we’ve shared in previous #LostLivesofLondonTown posts, the lives of African Americans on the South River in the 19th century were remarkably difficult. Most were enslaved on numerous plantations, although there was a free community on the eastern shore of Cadle Creek called Scrabbletown.

The Almshouse

In a strange middle ground were the African American residents of the Anne Arundel County Almshouse. The Almshouse was originally the site of the William Brown House, constructed in the mid 18th century. However, from the 1830s – 1965, it became the county’s almshouse for people who were unable to live on their own.

Enslaved people were not allowed to live at the Almshouse. However, free African Americans did live there, either because of mental illness, illiteracy, or an inability to market their skills (It was difficult to make a living cultivating tobacco when so many thousands were forced to do so without pay). These African American “paupers” occupied a special dormitory called the “negro quarters.” This was constructed at the request of a physician who recommended segregating the Almshouse in the 1830’s.

While the Almshouse offered a pleasant view of the South River, it was an atrocious place to live. Continually condemned as “an abode of misery,” a “shame” on the county and state, and “a crime,” the Almshouse was neglected by the county administrators responsible for it.

In 1877, the Maryland Board of Health found “the negro quarters, if possible, were even worse than those occupied by the whites. Each room was in disorderly and dirty condition, the beds were filthy, and without sheets or pillows; indeed in several of the rooms there were no beds, nothing but soiled blankets lying in disorder on the unscrubbed and unswept floors.”

No changes would be made for generations, prompting another report in 1893 to declare the dormitory “a disgrace.”

Research by Rebecca Robinson into census records for 1850 show that 56% of residents were African American. African Americans at the almshouse were a diverse group, ranging in age from nine to sixty-eight years old. Among these residents was Susan Butler, freed by her enslaver Henry Maynadier in 1826. By 1850 she was 40 old, had no occupation listed, and was labelled as an “idiot pauper” by the census taker.

By 1870, African Americans made up only a third of the people at the Almshouse. Perhaps the creation of free communities of color could absorb the less fortunate in ways that were impossible under slavery. Among these paupers were men and women who resisted slavery for decades. Lorenzo Burke had fled from his enslaver in 1844, as had Harry Scott in 1835. Now 56, Harry Scott was listed as “insane” on the 1870 census.

None of the African American paupers at the Almshouse in 1870 could read or write. While they had their long sought-after freedom, they were still trapped in an oppressive society. There were few opportunities and virtually no chance for advancement. Slavery had torn apart families; none of the paupers had familial connections to each other. Children under 16 were no longer present, and the average age of black paupers had gone up considerably.

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