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Lost Lives of London Town: Eve of Freedom

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.

In this installment of #LostLivesofLondonTown, discover the difficulties that African American people - especially those enslaved - faced on the eve of freedom.

Many people are unaware that Maryland was not included in the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which freed enslaved people in states that had seceded to the Confederacy. The Proclamation didn’t apply to slavery in states that stayed with the Union – including Maryland.

Being so frustratingly close to freedom, 70 enslaved people took matters into their own hands. In the June 1863, they worked together to flee from 3 different South River properties. They met up with more people from other counties, working together to reach Washington, DC.

Contraband Camp near Richmond, VA, 1865, National Archives (111-B-75) More information

A contraband school, ca. 1860—ca. 1865. National Archives (111-B-5240) More information

It’s likely they planned to disappear into what were known as “contraband camps,” which had sprung up around the DC area. The word “contraband” first referred to goods seized by the US government that were being used by rebels to support the rebellion. Enslaved people were treated as property legally but given freedom in practice, as long as they were protected by the US government and armed forces. “Contraband camps” became refugee camps of thousands of enslaved men, women, and children who had escaped to Union lines.

However, the enslaved people escaping to the contraband camps encountered hostilities from other locals. “A number of men,” the Alexandria Gazette wrote, “styling themselves as ‘patrols,’ armed” and rode between the enslaved and DC. Undeterred, the enslaved “massed themselves and pushed on.” A melee ensued, and the “patrollers” began to fire into the crowd. Two men and a woman were killed, five others shot. One of the men was shot four times.

Somehow, despite the violence, the enslaved people still pushed on. They escaped into a contraband camp and reported the attack to the Union Army. The 11th New York Volunteer Cavalry arrested the suspected “patrollers.”

Later, an Anne Arundel County resident recognized some of the enslaved people as his “property.” He demanded that they be returned to him under the Fugitive Slave Act. The army refused to enforce the law.

However, Maryland wouldn’t vote until 1864 to officially free anyone enslaved in the state. The vote passed by a very narrow margin.

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