Mary & Emily

If you come to the Washington DC area, I will tell you about Mary and Emily — and the largest attempted claim for freedom in American history.

The Edmonson Sisters

Paul Edmonson was a man of Maryland. He met Amelia (sometimes called Milly), fell in love, and they jumped the broom. First came Hamilton, then Samuel. Eventually Mary and Emily would fall in line with twelve siblings. Though Paul was free, Amelia was enslaved — as were their children. Condition of the mother follows the child (1662).

Washington DC in the 1840s was a curious place. Over time this town that was supposed to remain in a sort of transitory state did not follow that vague intention. Society developed in this corner carved out of both Maryland and Virginia — a society already made comfortable for more than two hundred years by the labor of those in bondage. The District was also a place slightly frozen in legal time, where many prevailing laws reflected its 18th century creation rather than its post-Nat Turner world. In other words, it was a place slightly less restrictive for the free Black community to flourish than the neighboring states. And by the late 1840s, the anti-slavery voices were often in sharp and public conflict with the pro-slavery status quo. So much so that Alexandria, DC retroceded in 1846, reverting to Alexandria, VA.

The Edmonsons were just trying to get along as best as a separated family could. Their enslaver was Rebecca Culver but overseen by a relative. Several of the eldest children were permitted to self-manumit by purchase and had settled in the DC neighborhood currently considered Downtown just below the Dupont area. [Many descendants continue to live in the metro area today.] The rest of the siblings were rented out, laboring in domestic situations for other families  scattered across the area. Emily, 13*, had been hired out to businessman Alexander Ray in Foggy Bottom, and Mary, 15, to a woman of means living on G St around the corner from John Quincy Adams. [*Ages are listed as two years older in sale manifests.]

Until the night of April 15, 1848.

By singles and in pairs, seventy-seven enslaved people — ladies-maids, coachmen, husbands, wives, and siblings — crept from their sleeping quarters in the District and made their way to the wharf where the schooner Pearl was waiting. Surnames familiar to Washingtonians today: Bell, Smallwood, Calvert, Pope. They chose a Saturday night, hoping the generally liberal day of Sunday church-going would mask their absence until the Monday sunrise. Aboard were Emily and Mary and four of their brothers.

As the ship’s hold grew crowded and the hull sank deeper into the water, the tensions and fears and hopes began to rise. Even after the Pearl began its drift down the Potomac, the passengers couldn’t exhale in relief. Did they whisper to each other in the dark of the hold? Clasp hands? Hum hymns for solace? Freedom was so close, but not yet theirs. 

For several hours the schooner sailed down to river where it would meet the Chesapeake Bay. The plan was to drop the precious cargo at Frenchtown on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Here they would be met by a network of abolitionists that would bring the freedom seekers across Delaware to Philadelphia. [Delaware was a slave state until the 13th Amendment, but the majority of the black community was free by the early 19th century.]

But someone snitched.

The enslavers were alerted (accounts on how differ vastly), and by Sunday evening a mob of white men had commandeered a vessel and were giving chase. The passengers of the Pearl would have had no way of knowing they were now being hunted. Weather hampered the small schooner as she fed into the Bay, so they had to drop anchor and wait. In the wee hours of Monday morning, the angry mob of men boarded the Pearl.

(I know…..where is this major motion picture??)

Mary and Emily would eventually be sold to Alexandria for resale at Bruin & Hill. Their father would approach Joseph Bruin for the chance to purchase his daughters. The slaver was willing to sell but not to lose profit. His intention was to ship the girls to New Orleans for the “fancy girl trade” into the brothels. Therefore the sum Paul Edmonson needed to raise was an astounding $2250 (approximately $82K today). Paul turned to the anti-slavery network of the northern states, particularly New York and Massachusetts. 

Enter Henry Ward Beecher. 

A preacher from a preaching family, Beecher was ministering to a congregation in Brooklyn while the Edmonsons were struggling for life and liberty. A vocal and active abolitionist, Beecher took up the cause for Mary and Emily. For several weeks he pushed from the pulpit for congregants to pledge money is the fight against “A sale by human flesh dealers of Christian girls!”

In early November 1848, Mary and Emily received their legal manumission.

The girls would continue to attract attention from the network in the north. Reverend Beecher’s sister took particular interest and paid for the sisters to attend Oberlin College. She used proceeds from a publication she authored following her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to cover the costs. In A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe would detail her connection to Mary and Emily Edmonson’s plight and her knowledge of slaver Joseph Bruin. (It is worth noting that this relationship was not always one of ease and equality of mind …that’s a different rabbit hole for a different day.)

Mary and Emily Edmonson spent some time speaking on the anti-slavery circuit, including sharing the stage with Frederick Douglass. [Daguerreotype by Ezra Greenleaf Weld; Courtesy of Madison County (New York) Historical Society. Douglass is seated, right. Mary & Emily are in plaid gowns and bonnets, standing behind on either side] Mary contracted tuberculosis and died at the young age of 20. Emily would eventually return to settle in Washington DC following the Civil War. She, her husband Larkin Johnson, and their children would establish themselves into the day-to-day of living in the capital city, as beloved and respected members of the community, and leave a legacy of determination and endurance for us who tell their stories today.


For further reading:

Escape on the Pearl by Mary Kay Ricks (2007

Fugitives of the Pearl by John H. Paynter (1930)

A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1853)

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