Ancestor's story of slavery and freedom comes to life
Fanny Crawford of Hagerstown holds a manuscript written by her great grandfather Thomas Henry Barnes. Fanny considers it a gift to have this piece of family history. (By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer)
On occasion, like this time, the bedtime stories Bill Crawford told his 5-year-old daughter were true family stories.
It was the story of her great-great-grandfather, Henry Barnes, who was born into slavery near Richmond, Va., circa 1818, and as a child was taken away from his family and sold to a Hagerstown man.
The woman Henry remembered as his mother gave him a quilt to remember where he came from, said Crawford, 61, who lives in Hagerstown’s North End.
Crawford said as a child, she would lie in bed sometimes running her hands across her own quilt as she thought of Henry and what it must have felt like for him to be torn away from his family.
Henry later adopted the name of his owner and was freed in dramatic fashion, according to family history.
“That was quite a story to hear as a 5-year-old. And it really helped me to understand that there were a lot of people who came before me, who, to whom I mattered. People who would have wanted me to succeed,” Crawford said.
Crawford shared Henry’s story during a Feb. 5 black history tribute hosted by the Contemporary School of the Arts & Gallery at the Review and Herald Publishing Association’s auditorium south of Hagerstown.
Henry Barnes’ story is included in a family manuscript, which is an autobiography written by Crawford’s great-grandfather, Thomas Henry “T.H.” Barnes, the son of Henry Barnes, Crawford said.
The manuscript has been a great gift, Crawford said. Sharing Henry’s story helps her remember her roots, she said.
Years in slavery
According to the family story, a man named Barnes — first name unknown, but who liked to be called Reverend Barnes — purchased Henry and loaded him and several other slaves into a wagon for the trip to Hagerstown, Crawford said.
Barnes bought young black men and boys, training them in a trade and — contrary to the laws of Maryland at the time — taught them to read, write and do basic arithmetic, Crawford said.
Henry was trained to be a seed man and landscape gardener, Crawford said.
Barnes would contract his slave labor out to neighbors. Because he’d educated his slaves, they could record their hours and type of work to report back to Barnes, Crawford said.
One night in 1835, with his health quickly declining, Barnes called in his 19 slaves to secretly confer with them, according to the manuscript.
He gave them each their free papers and $200, and told them to leave for Canada immediately, heading north through Pennsylvania and New York, Crawford said.
Barnes realized that by the next morning, his heirs would realize what he had done, declare him insane, contest the will and send a posse after the slaves, she said.
At Barnes’ request, the slaves agreed to take his surname, Crawford said.