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With hope of being free, James Pennington fled Rockland estate

The Rockland estate house, from which James Pennington fled in 1827, remains today, on 25 acres near Fairplay. The house was built around 1803.
The Rockland estate house, from which James Pennington fled in 1827, remains today, on 25 acres near Fairplay. The house was built around 1803. File photo
By Tiffany Arnold

With a piece of Indian flour bread in his pocket and hopes of becoming a free man in his heart, James W.C. Pennington ran away from Rockland Estate in search of freedom.

The so-called fugitive blacksmith would go on to become a minister in Presbyterian churches in New York and Hartford, Conn., and a delegate to several international abolition conventions.

He led efforts to desegregate New York City’s public transit system and fought for the right of blacks to vote. He also received a Doctor of Divinity from the University of Heidelberg and helped the Africans involved in the historic Amistad case form a Christian mission in Sierra Leone.

But before he went on to be a leading 19th-century abolitionist, Pennington was owned by Frisby Tilghman, founder of the village of Tilghmanton, south of Hagerstown.

“His story is absolutely riveting and I think it’s inspiring,” said Dean Herrin, a historian for the National Park Service and a coordinator of the Catoctin Center for Regional Studies.

Pennington chronicled his 1827 escape from Rockland in his autobiography, “The Fugitive Blacksmith; or, Events in the History of James W.C. Pennington.” The book is among a slim set of accounts written by slaves, part of a popular 19th century nonfiction genre known as the slave narrative, Herrin said.

Herrin said the National Park Service is working to republish the book.

W.C. Pennington
W.C. Pennington No photo credit

Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass are among Maryland’s most widely known runaways because of their contributions to early civil rights efforts. But information about what it was like for the common slave is difficult to come by — particularly information about slaves in Western Maryland, Herrin said.

Public records, newspaper clippings and items from Tilghman’s personal effects supported much of what Pennington wrote in his autobiography.

Pennington, who changed his name after he escaped, was born on the Eastern Shore as James Pembroke around 1807, according to Herrin’s records.

When his mother’s master, James Tilghman — a judge on the Maryland Court of Appeals — died, Pennington was to become the property of James Tilghman’s son, Frisby Tilghman, who had moved to Washington County, a wheat-growing region of the state, according to Herrin’s records.

“People like Tilghman, who had migrated from the Eastern Shore, had this idea that they needed to own many slaves, but he found in the 1820s, he didn’t know what to do with them,” said Herrin, who referenced letters between Tilghman and relatives on the Eastern Shore.

His chief complaint, Herrin said, was that he had too many slaves.

The Eastern Shore’s economy was characterized by a more labor-intensive agricultural system, but grain-growing regions of the state such as Washington County weren’t as labor intensive. As a result, Tilghman hired out many of his slaves to tradesmen in the iron and carpentry industry, Herrin said.

Pennington was hired out to a stone mason in Hagerstown when he was 9. He wote that he returned to Rockland at age 11 and learned to be a blacksmith, work he did until he was 21, the year he decided to run away.

Pennington described everyday life at Rockland estate.

He wrote that slaves at Rockland were fed salt pork, herring and Indian corn — all part of an allotted 3 1/2 pounds of food provided each week. At times, women slaves used ground corn to make johnnycakes.

Slaves were provided with shoes, stockings, “pantaloons” and a jacket for winter. For summer, they were given “coarse” linen pants and shirts, Pennington wrote.

Slaves at Rockland were not allowed to attend church on Sundays, although they weren’t required to work on that day.

In his narrative, Pennington described Tilghman as having a “kind temper,” but he would not tolerate insubordination from his slaves.

“He would suppress it at once, and at any risk,” Pennington wrote. “When he thought it necessary to secure unqualified obedience, he would strike a slave with any weapon, flog him on the bare back and sell. And this was the kind of discipline he also empowered his overseers and sons to use.”

Pennington wrote that, as a child, he learned to fear the plantation’s overseer, who flogged him with a “hickory whip.”

But the day Tilghman beat Pennington’s father for talking back was the day Pennington vowed to no longer be a slave.

According to Pennington’s account, two slaves on the Rockland plantation broke curfew; Tilghman decided to vent his anger on Pennington’s father, Bazil.

Pennington wrote that Tilghman asked if Bazil also had broken curfew. Bazil replied that he had not and did not know why the others had done so. Tilghman responded that he had too many slaves and, in what Pennington described as an “angry, threatening, and exceedingly insulting tone,” said he would have to sell some of them.

Bazil responded by saying: “If I am one too many, sir, give me a chance to get a purchaser, and I am willing to be sold when it may suit you,” according to Pennington’s account.

Not liking the response, Tilghman pulled out a cowhide and whipped Bazil 15 to 20 times across the back and shoulders. Before delivering the final blow, according to Pennington’s account, Tilghman said: “I will make you know that I am master of your tongue as well as your time.”

Pennington wrote that he also was beaten and that his master had another slave spy on his family.

It was that series of incidents that Pennington said compelled him to run.

In late October, Pennington slipped a piece of bread into his pocket, took a last look at the slave quarters and fled to a cave where he had hidden a stash of clothes beneath a pile of stones, according to Pennington’s narrative. He entered Hagerstown at night and set out to follow the “north star” to Pennsylvania, a free state.

Many runaways came through Washington County because of its proximity to Pennsylvania. But if they were caught, they risked being sold to the Deep South or being held in Hagerstown Jail, Herrin said.

Some were shot and killed, according to old newspaper records.

Tilghman offered a $200 reward for Pennington’s capture, according to ads published in an Dec. 18, 1827, edition of the Torch Light and Public Advertiser, which described Pennington as “very black, square & clumsily made.”

Pennington’s attempt to follow the north star took him east and not north — about 20 miles from Baltimore. He describes how he evaded recapture by saying he had been sold to Georgia, but the slave-trader who made the deal died of smallpox and abandoned him. After days traveling along public roads, forests and cornfields, Pennington made it to Pennsylvania.

He learned to read and write, and learned about other distinguished blacks, such as Benjamin Banneker and Phillis Wheatley, he wrote. He passed through Philadelphia and wound up in New York, where he found work on Long Island.

Pennington took courses at Yale and became a minister, according to Yale’s records. Pennington wrote “The Origin and History of Colored People” and, in 1849, published his autobiography — while he was technically still a fugitive slave. His autobiography sold more than 6,000 copies and was printed in three editions in the 11 months after it was published, according to information from the National Park Service.

He was able to help several of his family members get to Canada and purchased the freedom of his brother, who escaped from Sharpsburg.

Pennington died in 1870.

With all of his experiences, Pennington wrote in his autobiography, there was one sin that slavery committed against him that he couldn’t forgive: “It robbed me of my education; the injury is irreparable.”

Pennington goes on to say, “If I know my own heart, I have no ambition to serve the cause of suffering humanity; all that I have desired or sought, has been to make me more efficient for good.”

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