Thomas Gross and the Road to "Maryland in Liberia"
The monies of men like Johns Hopkins removed Black Marylanders to West Africa
Colonizationists—the leaders of the African missionary enterprise, were the originators of our expatriating laws. They are the despisers and the persecutors of those whom they propose to benefit. They are irreconcilably hostile to our moral and intellectual elevation in the land of our birth;—nay, they are, for the most part, opposed to the improvement of our character and condition in any portion of the American continent. — William Watkins, writing as The Colored Baltimorean for The Liberator, January 25, 1834
Earlier this spring, presentations at the Universities Studying Slavery conference encouraged us to take a closer look Johns Hopkins’s connections to the Maryland State Colonization Society and its efforts to remove Black Americans from the United States to its West African colony, “Maryland in Liberia.” This led us to Thomas Gross, a man once enslaved in Baltimore County, who went with his family to Liberia in 1849. Gross’s desperation along with his dreams illustrate how enslaved people in Maryland sometimes gave up on any future in the United States.
Supporters of the Maryland State Colonization Society allied with a most popular political movement of the early 19th century, one that transcended party lines and the sectional divide. Historians debate whether colonization was pro- or anti-slavery. The movement secured the emancipation of individual enslaved people, but it did not endorse the abolitionist demand that slavery be immediately and wholly abolished. The Society raised funds that purchased freedom for some, but freedom demanded a price: exile from the US to West Africa. Clear is that the colonization society saw no future for Black people in the US and it worked to ensure that the nation remained a white man’s republic.
Thomas Gross faced a crisis when he considered migrating to Liberia in 1848.His enslaver, William Potts, was dead and the Potts family began dismantling his estate. Potts’s farm went up for auction and the enslaved people who worked that land, including Gross and his family, might be next. This threat — the separation of family members — was among the gravest fears held by enslaved people. (And we know that, for many decades after abolition in 1865, formerly enslaved people searched for loved ones from whom they were separated.)
Gross had acquaintances already settled in Liberia. In July 1848, he wrote directly to Moses Sheppard, a Colonization Society leader, to learn how they fared: “I would be much pleased to here [sic] from them. Therefore will you please be so kind as to let me know in what part of the colony the Rev. Jacob Gross resides, or Philip Gross of Frederick County, Md.”Thomas Gross suggested that he might follow them, but also knew that other Black Marylanders resisted removal, remarking to Sheppard: “I am surprised at my uncle’s children that are in Frederick County refusing to go to a place they can enjoy all the privileges that freedom can afford.” Signing up for Liberia might keep Gross’s family intact, but it was not an easy prospect.
What came next was a series of transactions that freed the Grosses from the estate of William Potts.Colonization Society agent John Wells worked to ensure there were funds enough to send the Gross family out of the country. Members of the Potts family contributed; among them were committed colonizationists. So too did men in Baltimore City, including Moses Sheppard, $50, Johns Hopkins, $20, Miles White, $5, and Archibald Sterling, $5. Black people also supported the Grosses, though they were recorded only as nameless “sundry colored persons” who donated $15.75.
Wells collected at least $300 in total leading Daniel Hughes, a Potts family relation and colonization activist, to praise the effort: “I congratulate all who have manifested any interest in this case.” With the monies in hand, Hughes explained, the attorney for the William Potts estate would “give [the Society] every necessary document liberating the family.”
Yes, the Gross family was freed and importantly they remained together. But this came about only by way of a tough bargain that obligated them to leave Maryland for West Africa. Early in August 1849, newspapers reported that the Liberia Packet set sail. Aboard were “about twenty-five emigrants,” including five “purchased by the Maryland Colonization Society, specially to be sent out — they are Thomas Gross and family.”
In our next post, we’ll take a closer look at Thomas Gross’s reflections on why, for a formerly enslaved person, Liberia promised things that Maryland lawmakers never would.
Thanks to our colleagues at Guilford College and Wake Forest University for hosting such important discussions.
On colonization, see Nicholas Guyatt, ““Rethinking Colonization in the Early United States,” chapter 16 in New Directions in the Study of African American Recolonization, eds. Matthew J. Hetrick and Beverly Tomek (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2017): 329-350. On the pressures colonization imposed on Black Baltimoreans, see Martha S. Jones, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.)
Thomas Gross to Mr. Shepherd [sic]. July 31, 1848. Correspondence Received, Letter Book, 1848 - 1848 - 1849; Papers of the Maryland State Colonization Society; Maryland Center for History and Culture. The Maryland State Archives has digitized the MSCS Papers and you access them here.
“Died,” Sun, June 5, 1848. “A Valuable Farm in Baltimore County,” American and Commercial Daily Advertiser, November 21, 1848.
Newspaper ads testify to how cherished loved ones were wrenched apart when, for example, an enslaver died and their estate was auctioned or divided. At the website Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery, you can read examples of these ads. For a deeper dive, see Heather Andrea Williams’s Help Me Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery (UNC Press, 2012) which explores stories of separations, searches, and reunions of formerly enslaved people after the Civil War.
Thomas Gross to Mr. Shepherd [sic]. July 31, 1848. Correspondence Received, Letter Book, 1848 - 1848 - 1849; Papers of the Maryland State Colonization Society; Maryland Center for History and Culture.
Thomas Gross to “Sir.” September 3, 1848. Correspondence Received, Letter Book, 1848 - 1848 - 1849; Papers of the Maryland State Colonization Society; Maryland Center for History and Culture.
In his July 31, 1838 letter, Gross explained to Sheppard that the Potts family “has acknowledged my freedom.” Perhaps the Potts family agreed in principle to manumit the Grosses. Still, only one year later, after the requisite funds were raised, did they legally liberate the family
“Subscription for the purchase of Thomas Gross and Family,” Maryland Colonization Journal v. 5, no. 1 (July 1849): 127. Hopkins was party to at least two other contributions to the Society, in July 1835 when “J. Hopkins & Brothers” contributed $5.00. Financial Records, Bank Books, April 1825-October 1875; Papers of the Maryland State Colonization Society; Maryland Center for History and Culture. In April 1851, the Society reported collecting $10 from Hopkins. “Travelling Agent’s Report for April, 1851,” Maryland Colonization Journal 6, no. 1 (June 1851): 15.
Daniel Hughes to the Maryland State Colonization Society. March 26, 1849. Correspondence Received, Letter Books, 1847-1848-184; Papers of the Maryland State Colonization Society; Maryland Center for History and Culture.
“For Liberia,” Daily National Intelligencer, August 3, 1849.
We have been amazed by your fidelity to share these conversations....we have held small group discussions about them with our black audiences....hopefully, one day you will be matured enough to share what we in east Baltimore call : Cotton Conversations....the creation of the East Baltimore Historical Library is a modern day Hard Story that JHU continues to play a heavy hand in scripting. Hope to hear from you before I reach 82...as I am 72 yrs young, now. Keeping it moving, Nia Redmond - East Baltimore Historical Library- email@example.com
Another important wrinkle to the Johns Hopkins story. Thanks. Seeing Miles White's name made me smile. While documenting the 1100 block of Sarah Ann Street in the Poppleton neighborhood -- you may have seen them in the news this week after the city announced plans to rehab the properties and save the nearby Eaddy home -- I learned that Miles White had the row of 12 houses built in 1870-1871. White (1792-1876) was also Johns Hopkins' brother-in-law. In 1849, about a year after coming to Baltimore from North Carolina. the Quaker merchant married Margaret Hopkins, Johns' youngest sibling. Over the next 25 years, White acquired amassed hundreds of properties across Baltimore and in at least nine states. Ten of the 12 Sarah Ann Street alley houses remained in the White family, passing from father to son to grandson, until 1949. Another story, I know, but worth throwing out there I figured as all things are interconnected. Dean Krimmel (firstname.lastname@example.org)