Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Story of Jenny and Noah

Jenny and Noah ran away in August 1825. Jenny was Frederick Douglass's aunt, the sister of his mother, Harriet. Noah was her husband. Aaron Anthony, Douglass's master, owned them all. Douglass, who was approximately seven years old at the time, heard about their escape and the news affected him profoundly. This was, he later wrote, the first time that he had heard that there was such a thing as free states and that, if a slave could get to them, the slave would be free. (Legally speaking, that was not true, but that was not how enslaved people perceived or even lived the situation.)

The story, however, had more parts to it than Douglass may have known at the time or found useful for his autobiographies. Eleven days after their flight, Jenny and Noah’s children also left Maryland, but they went in the other direction. Anthony sold Mary and Isaac, ages 7 and 6 respectively, along with their first cousin, fourteen year old Betty, and their aunt, nineteen year old Maryann, to slave traders in September 1825. If my theory about childrearing under Anthony’s ownership is true, then Douglass knew the two children and the two children, like him, did not know their mother.

From what I can surmise, Anthony allowed the women he enslaved to keep their children with them for about two years. Then, the babies went to live with their grandmother, Betsy. Betsy kept her own youngest children as well as these grandchildren until they reached about the age of five or six. Douglass, for instance, wrote that he had been taken from his mother before he could remember her and that his grandmother kept him until he was approximately six years old. When they reached that age, Betsy did what Anthony ordered, and took the child – be it her own or her grandchild – to Anthony’s house on the Lloyd plantation on the far side of the county. In 1825, Douglass himself was seven, the same age as Mary, and had been at Wye house for a year. That would mean that he, Mary, and Isaac had been kept together at Betsy’s cabin, and that the two were either still there or also at Wye House with him.

Jenny and Noah, however, lived elsewhere. According to Dickson Preston, author of Young Frederick Douglass, the Maryland Years, they worked at one of Anthony’s Tuckahoe plantations. In fact, Preston last mentions the specific location of Jenny’s employment as being in the Hillsboro home of Elinor Maloney, Anthony’s elderly widowed sister, where Douglass’s mother Harriet had also worked for a time. In other words, Jenny and Noah had been separated from their children for several years; and if their children had already been sent to Wye House, then the distance of the separation had grown further.

This is not to say that Jenny and Noah callously ran away and abandoned their children. In fact, this is the difficult part of writing about enslaved people and attempting to explain their situation to a twenty first century, American audience. Enslaved people faced choices that are alien to our experience today, and historians have to convey the logic of those choice with sympathy and without judgement. Thus, when Jenny and Noah ran away, thereby abandoning their children, they did so for specific reasons that might seem callous, but made the most sense to their particular situation.

So, what options did Jenny and Noah have? They had already lost a child who had died in infancy in 1821, when Mary was three and probably just removed to Betsy’s cabin, and when Isaac as two and on his way there, too. Thus, three babies had been taken from them in as many years, one forever. Since most of Jenny’s sisters and her mother had children approximately every two years, Jenny could have lost others to miscarriages or still births between 1821 and 1825, or she may have found out that she was pregnant about the time that she and Noah ran away. The separation from their children may have been the impetus for their flight. Their “Sophie’s Choice” decision may have followed a logic in which they thought, “these two children are lost for now – we can come back for them, we might buy them, we can get them, but the next ones will be ours to have and to raise.”

Then came the sale. Preston suspected that Jenny and Noah’s flight was a response to the impending sale, a logical conclusion if they suspected that they themselves would be sold. Would they do the same if they suspected that their children faced the auction block, or would they have know that the situation was desperate and had the same conversation about which I have speculated above? Perhaps, because of their children’s youth, they assumed that they would be immune from sale. In 1825, young women like Maryann and Betty, or their male counterparts, would get a higher price than two children.

The sale of the children, however, strikes me as retaliation. In the ad that Anthony posted in a Baltimore paper on the day before the sale, he wrote that he had planned to give Jenny and Noah their freedom. Given that he had already slated at least two young women for sale, and threw in two more children, he was hardly in the mood to let two grown, healthy, slaves, one bearing children, get away for free. The next day, he sold their children.

I wish I knew what happened to Jenny and Noah, to Mary and Isaac, to Maryann and Betty. So many others on the Lloyd and Anthony farms probably did, too.

Image from Dickson J. Preson, Young Frederick Douglass, the Maryland Years (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 66.

Preston, Young Frederic Douglass, 64-66.
Aaron Anthony Return Books, Lloyd Family Papers, Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, Maryland.


  1. My initial reaction to this wasn't at all to think they were callous. I guess my thought was more that being in slavery wasn't helping their children, so why not leave and see what happens afterwards. Because in a very real way, their children were already lost to them, even if they were 'physically' close-by. And, if the selling of the children was an act of retaliation, and we can assume that Anthony would have some insight into his slaves, then we could use this as the basis of evidence that they would have felt strongly about those children.

  2. Exactly! I'm glad you saw that. I hadn't thought of that last point, but you are right. Controlling acccess or selling the kids is leverage over the slaves. Anthony scattered most of this family throughout the county, and, until writing this, I hadn't thought about the fact that he also controlled their movements. Time and distance were a problem in seeing their children, if their children were 12 miles away; but if you have to have permission or a pass to even leave the plantation, and if you are assigned to a farm on which there are maybe two or three slaves and the overseer knows wehre you are at all times, then you might as well be the next state over. Then, I began to wonder if one of the options a slave parent might have to resist would be to refuse to let the overseer or the master use their children as leverage -- even if that might mean she or he never saw the children. Maybe Jenny or Harriet or any of their sisters thought, "as long as I know my babies are safe with Betsey, their grandma, I will not let you, the master, use them to control me."