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    Highland County's Forgotten Child

    "On this day in 1857, Mary Gordon, a "free" black child of about 2 years old, was bound out as an apprentice to Stuart C. Slaven until age 18 to learn the business of housekeeping. Slaven was ordered to pay Mary $25 when she reached the age of 18; Mary died at age 16."

    This was the account of Mary Gordon's life provided by the Highland County Historical Society. She was born free but died in bondage. How?

    I was at my desk typing when I heard the jingle that has become synonymous with the Highland County Historical Society's problematic way of dealing with slavery. For the better part of two years I've listened to "On This Day" segments that have ranged from very good to downright awful. The history of this area + a lack of diversity + the affinity many citizens have for the Civil War vis-a-vis the Confederate army = the perfect conditions for the continued degradation of bound and enslaved people. 

    For several months I've wanted to reach out to the team that produces these tracks, but I know how these conversations tend to go. I have never figured out how to talk about race without triggering the need of some well intentioned person to add the usual qualifiers: "not all", "quit being so sensitive", "my people were oppressed", or my personal favorite: "I don't see color". 

    I have to overcome the trap of moral authority. That is my biggest obstacle when writing and/or talking about race. At times, being "right" has negatively affected the way I have shared information. I have a natural air of certainty when it comes to the issues I research, write, and talk about. My "preaching" style can put people on the defensive. This has stopped them from listening. Instead of sharing information and perspectives, people start defending themselves from attacks that aren't part of the conscious dialogue.

    With all of that said, the excerpt that started this blog was easily the most problematic 25 seconds of radio I've heard in a long time. Mary's life was treated like a footnote. We learned she was the "free" property of Stuart Slaven. Her interests and dreams didn't make the cut. The fact that a historical society chose to exclude, or couldn't produce, any more information about her time on Earth is a testament to how little her life still matters. She was born, washed dishes, did laundry, possibly suffered the fate of other young girls who were bound, and then she died.  

    I don't ascribe malevolent motives to those who reported on Mary's life. A lot of the information used in these features come from court records and documents that never considered the humanity of the people they were chronicling. This dehumanizing was intentional during slavery. God fearing Christians had to justify their mistreatment of people "made in the image of God", but we can do better. This kind of talk too often gets classified as political correctness. It's easier to call something "PC" and avoid it than it is to investigate things that make us uncomfortable or we don't understand. 

    I want the historical society to know It's possible to hurt people without meaning to. It's possible to engage in problematic behavior without knowing it. It's possible for a predominantly white community to unintentionally alienate the minorities among them. This doesn't make a person, institution or a community good or bad. It just means there is more work to do. All of us are susceptible to our own lack of understanding.

    A lot of people don't know what it meant to be bound. If you don't know, then it's possible to think living in bondage was better than being a slave, but that isn't true. Being a bond servant was often worse than being a slave. Many of the "free" Blacks who found themselves in bondage never lived to see the freedom they were working for. There were more mixed race "free" Blacks than "free" Blacks with no outward signs of European blood. These mixed race "free" Blacks were often the children of rape. Was Mary Gordon a child of mixed race? Did Stuart Slaven father Mary? Child birth was the leading cause of death for women under 30 during the mid 19th century, was Mary pregnant at the time of her death? Who gives an apprenticeship to a two year old? Did Stuart pay any reparations to Mary's family after her death? These are a few of the questions I have about one of Highland County's forgotten children.



    Statues of Confederates were erected, but we are instructed to move on rather than remember when it comes to slaves. Florida is removing the statute of a Confederate general in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capital and replacing it with one of Mary McCloud Bethune. Progress is happening.


    ​NOLA Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s book comes out today. In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History” details how Landrieu came to grips the harm he was causing by ignoring how blacks felt about the Confederate statues.


    There is no obligation to remain silent. We have to push to find out details about our ancestors. It can be heartbreaking to try to trace one’s genealogy because black lives didn’t matter. 

    Thanks fot this post.

    Mary's life was treated like a footnote. We learned she was the "free" property of Stuart Slaven. Her interests and dreams didn't make the cut.

    Perhaps, as you say, the Historical Society had no further information, but it seems unlikely that they would have been able to uncover those details and nothing more.  Have you tried to research her life?

    I would think it unlikely in this case because she mostly an underage indentured servant until she died. So whoever sold her as a child would either be embarrassed that they had done so or didn't value her life. So she wouldn't be on many records.What is entering in here besides race, slavery and/or indentured servitude: many people did not invest as much in children as we do now precisely because: they often died!  Especially people that were not of the upper classes. (Get too attached and it might break your heart, you expected children to die.The further back you go in history before modern medicine, the more you see this.) 

    Edit to add: gender also comes in here. Women in general were only considered important to record if they bore children, otherwise their lives of not much import to society or historical record.

    Regarding shame, there were open slave markets where black children were sold.



    Just to be clear, I was talking about what records are probable and I was talking about the possibility of an instance like a free black parent selling their child into indentured servitude because they could not afford to support her. Poor people did that a lot back then, more than is recognized.  And they might be embarrassed that they had to do so, so they would want as few records as possible.

    This is still done a lot in the third world.

    It is an unfortunate mindset where this is not seen as the equivalent of slavery, back then someone might rationalize it as more like apprenticeship.  And truth be told, it is not the exact equivalent of the type of lifetime of slavery you are referring to with your link.

    Edit to add, to reiterate, this is what Danny has got on this girl, she was "bound out" as an unpaid apprentice from age 2 to  age 18 to learn housekeeping and in turn after finishing that stint, she would be sent on her way, free to do what she liked, at age 18, with $25.

    "On this day in 1857, Mary Gordon, a "free" black child of about 2 years old, was bound out as an apprentice to Stuart C. Slaven until age 18 to learn the business of housekeeping. Slaven was ordered to pay Mary $25 when she reached the age of 18; Mary died at age 16." 

    There was a difference between what white and Black bondsmen could expect

    In other cases, masters refused to acknowledge the expiration of indentured contracts of blacks, most of whom were illiterate in English. Anthony Johnson was claimed to have held his indentured servant, John Casor, past his term. Johnson was among the first 20 black men brought to Jamestown in 1619 as indentured servants. By 1623, the Angolan had gained his freedom. By 1651 he was prosperous enough to import five "servants" of his own, for which he was granted 250 acres (1.0 km2) as "headrights".[10] One of his servants was John Casor. Casor later claimed to a neighboring farmer, Robert Parker, that he had completed his term. Parker persuaded Johnson to free Casor, who then went to work for Parker. The farmer signed him to a new term of indenture. Johnson challenged Parker in court, saying he had taken his worker. In the lawsuit of Johnson vs. Parker, the court in Northampton County ruled that "seriously consideringe and maturely weighing the premisses, doe fynde that the saide Mr. Robert Parker most unjustly keepeth the said Negro from Anthony Johnson his master....It is therefore the Judgement of the Court and ordered That the said John Casor Negro forthwith returne unto the service of the said master Anthony Johnson, and that Mr. Robert Parker make payment of all charges in the suit." Casor was returned to Johnson and served him for the rest of his life.

    There is evidence in the 1650s that some Virginia Negroes were serving for life. In 1660 the Assembly stated that “in case any English servant shall run away in company with any Negroes who are incapable of making satisfaction by addition of time…[he] shall serve for the time of the said Negroes absence.” This statute indicates quite clearly that Negroes served for life and hence could not make “satisfaction” by serving longer once they were recaptured. This phrase gave legal status to the already existing practice of lifetime enslavement of Negroes. Statutes were soon passed to define slavery with more conditions than lifetime servitude.[11]

    In 1660 Elizabeth Key won the first freedom suit in Virginia. She challenged being classified as a slave in a complicated case related to a lengthy indenture and an estate. The mixed-race woman, daughter of an African woman and English planter, argued that she was free due to her white English father who had acknowledged her as his daughter, had her baptized as a Christian, and tried to protect her by establishing a guardian and indentureship for her as a girl when he was dying. After this case, the colonial legislature adopted the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, saying that all children born in the colony would take the status of their mothers, regardless of paternity. Thus children born to enslaved mothers would be enslaved, regardless of their ethnicity or paternity. This was contrary to English common law for children of parents who are both English subjects, in which the child takes status from the father. But the law also meant that mixed-race children born to white women were born free, and many families of free African Americans were descended from unions between white women and ethnic African men during the colonial era.

    The above is mostly from Phillip S Foner’s  “History of Black Americans: From African to the Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom cited in Wikipedia. Some black bond servants had  a life sentence.


    Thanks for all of yout thoughtful comments. This was a particularly crass report from them. I truly don't think they are malicious, but this one stung.

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