The Labor Day weekend edition of the Baltimore Sun invited readers to explore the history of labor in and around our city: Tide Point, now the headquarters of Under Armour, where Procter and Gamble made soap for 70 years, but more importantly where factory employees were guaranteed 48 weeks of work per year, as well as profit sharing and a pension; the Museum of Industry, where the gritty, industrial past of Baltimore is celebrated “to inspire tomorrow’s workers” today; Hampton, an 18th century mansion in Towson, the largest house in the country at the time, where over 300 enslaved people at its height worked on the plantation; and more. Sarah and I scheduled our exploration of the sites around the Harbor for Monday, and headed to Hampton after church.
The Park Service employee who led our tour was giddy with the number of people inspired by the Sun article to visit, and he told us his personal narrative to ground the story of Hampton. An African-American man from North Carolina, the ranger moved his young family to Baltimore a year ago because of the opportunity to share “the kitchen and field story” of slaves and indentured servants in such an unlikely place: on the border of the industrial north. “How is it possible,” he asked several times, “that hundreds of people remained in bondage over a century and a half, with no wall or fence to hold them, and Pennsylvania only a few miles away?” We walked through lavish period rooms designed to impress the Ridgely family’s weekend guests, but our guide kept directing us to the lives of the people who cooked the food for the banquet table, who sewed the gowns and made the furniture, who milled the lumber and laid the floors for dancing. “What is the impact of language that trains you to feel less-than,” he wondered. “How did slavery cripple both while people and black people? What is the legacy of racism in Baltimore today?”
A great deal of the Ridgely’s wealth came from the discovery of iron ore, and the estate hired indentured servants to run the works. Our guide told us, “The port in Baltimore was noisy with ships unloading finished goods from France and prisoners from England, and then loading them back up with iron bound for Europe.”
Something inside me began to break open.
“How many people were indentured at Hampton?” I asked. “Scores,” he answered. “Mr. Ridgely scoured the downtown docks regularly for skilled labor he could purchase. The work was so demanding at the iron works that they needed a steady supply of prisoners to keep up with it.”
I began to remember something I had forgotten.
“Do you have the names of the servants who worked here?” I wondered. They do.
Here’s what I learned on Labor Day. In 1720 William Isgrig was born in London, England. At 20 he was apprenticed to a goldsmith, an excellent opportunity for a humble, but enterprising young man. Later that same year, William’s father died suddenly, and he left his apprenticeship to go home, presumably to care for his mother and siblings. In 1740, William was arrested for stealing 12 silver belt buckles from the goldsmith who had employed him: feeling desperate, I would imagine, and not able to see beyond the fear that seized him. In 1741 he was indentured to Baltimore. I’m not sure yet if William landed at Hampton, but I learned there that his skills would have been desirable, and public records show that he fathered several children and died in Baltimore County.
His descendants found their way to Indiana, where land was cheap and they could start over. Another broken law and a midnight horse ride got his family to Arkansas—but that’s another story…
My grandmother was Elsie Jane Isgrig, and she would have been scandalized by William’s connection to Baltimore, but I’m drawn to his plight. He was a striver and a survivor, vulnerable to his fears but able to rise above them. He learned to work hard and keep his head down and make amends for his mistakes. I know the men in my family, so I imagine William carried shame to his grave, but I’m proud of him. Fear and low self-worth can be carried like a perverse gene, enticing the descendants of servants and slaves to wound themselves and others for reasons that elude us. Separating a person’s identity from his labor is a sin, and the legacy of slavery will continue to cripple us until we face how both the owner and the owned are dehumanized in that system, and in the racism that it engendered. That is the work that calls me to Baltimore, which it turns out, is an invitation to come back home. Thank you, William.
Knowing your story makes you an agent of your identity instead of somebody’s victim. Accepting how you are afraid and frail is the beginning of love—of others and yourself. Light peeks through the broken places.