Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Rev. Eli Nugent (c. 1785-1861)
MSA SC 3520-16274

Biography:

Born c. 1785. Son of Eli E. Nugent (d. 1852). Three Siblings: Shadrach Nugent (1790-1861), Ellie Nugent, Millie Nugent Snowden. Married Eleanor Nugent (maiden name unknown) prior to 1814.1 One son: Eli Nugent Jr. (b. 1814). Married second wife, Charlotte Norris, 21 August 1832. One daughter: Anne Nugent Green (1836-1877).2 Died on February 26, 1861.

Eli Nugent was born in Montgomery County, Maryland around 1785.3 Likely born free, in his adulthood, Nugent was a leader of the free black community in Washington, D.C. in the first half of the nineteenth century. Nugent was one of the first free black Methodist ministers in the city and a founder of Asbury Chapel, one of the first free black churches in Washington, D.C. (now the Asbury United Methodist Church). He was a highly respected individual in his community and was engaged in conducting sermons, performing marriages, and educating children.4

Nugent moved to the District of Columbia from Montgomery County during his youth. In 1814, when the British invaded and burned Washington, Nugent and his young family were among the refugees who fled the city and sought refuge in the town of Brookeville, Maryland. It was there that he joined his siblings, Millie and Shadrach, who had been living in Brookeville for a few years.5 Shortly after this incident, Nugent returned to Washington, where he worked as a porter for a local businessman named Darius Claggett.6

After returning to Washington after the War of 1812, Nugent was ordained as a Methodist Episcopal minister.7 In 1832, Nugent married his second wife, Charlotte Norris. She was an early teacher at “The Smother’s School House” Sunday school, one of only a few educational resources for free blacks at the time.8 In 1836, the Asbury Chapel was founded when a group led by Nugent left Foundry Methodist Episcopal Church to form its own congregation. This new congregation was formed in response to racial tension at Foundry between black and white parishioners.9 The Asbury Chapel would prove to be a bedrock of the black community in Washington for the next eighty years. They set about educating youth and providing community outreach for the city's growing population of disenfranchised black citizens. In 1843, Nugent was hailed by a Boston-based abolitionist newspaper as a paragon of free black citizenry for his role in the church.10

In July of 1844, Nugent attended a convention of all of the African American Sunday schools in Washington, D.C. as a representative of the Asbury school. This meeting was called to provide solidarity between the various free black schools in the city as they continued to face racial prejudice and attacks. On July 4, 1844, the delegates formed the Washington Colored Sabbath School Union, an organization for "the promotion of the Sabbath Schools cause among our people in this community." Nugent was unanimously elected as a vice president and his son, Eli Nugent Jr. was elected treasurer.11

After the convention, Nugent continued to teach Sunday school for several years. In the course of his teaching, he would educate several students of considerable notoriety within the Washington, D.C. black community. The most notable pair of students that he would encounter would become his pupils in the late 1840s. In 1848, Nugent wrote a reference of good character on behalf of Mary and Emily Edmonson, who were under scrutiny for their famous escape attempt onboard the Pearl, which was "the largest mass escape of fugitive slaves in American history." He had been their Sunday school teacher for over two years.12

Despite the highly positive course that he had taken throughout several decades, Nugent's life was not completely without tragedy. In 1854, a woman who was living in Nugent's household committed suicide by drinking an excess of laudanum, which is a tincture of opium. This woman's story may forever remain a mystery.13

When Nugent died on February 26, 1861, his obituary in The National Republican praised him as being "much esteemed by all who knew him."14 In 1912, Nugent's nephew, Meshach Nugent, claimed that the Supreme Court adjourned to attend his uncle's funeral.15 Though Nugent had passed away well over a century earlier, September 16, 1997 marked a special tribute that was delivered on the floor of the United States House of Representatives, honoring the Asbury Chapel and recognizing Eli Nugent as the founder of such an extraordinary organization.16

Jackson Gilman-Forlini and Kyle Bacon, DAR Research Fellows, 2012.

Notes:

  1. "Died," Critic-Record (Washington DC), Issue 6893, September 5, 1890, p. 3. Article listing Mary M. Nugent as the granddaughter of "the late Rev. Eli and Eleanor Nugent."
  2. "Died," Evening Star (Washington DC), June 15, 1877. The obituary of Ann Green, described as the "daughter of Charlotte and the late Eli Nugent, in the 41st year of her age."
  3. 1850 United States Census, Washington Ward 2, Washington, District of Columbia. Roll M432_56, p. 110A, Image 226. This census record lists an "Eli Nugen" as being 36 years of age.
  4. "Married," The Alexandria Gazette, February 17, 1842, p. 3. One of several articles listing Rev. Eli Nugent as the officiant for a wedding; and to education; "Marriages in Church," Evening Star (Washington DC), November 3, 1855. Lists the Rev. Eli Nugent as the officiant of a wedding at Asbury Methodist Church.
  5. "One Hundred and Fifteen: A Centennial Contribution. The Oldest Man in the United States- His History and Recollections," Critic Record (Washington DC), June 19, 1876. This article contains the recollections of Eli Nugent's brother Shadrach, who was believed to be the oldest man in the United States at the time that the article was written. In the article, Shadrach states that Eli accompanied him to Brookeville when they and other townspeople fled DC upon the British attack in August of 1814. 
  6. "The Unexpected Arrival of Mr. Lincoln-Reception of His Family and Suite," The Baltimore Sun, February 25, 1861, p. 4. Article describing Eli Nugent as " a colored porter in the establishment of the late Darius Claggett."
  7. Miles C. Maxfield, "A Century of Colored Sunday School Work at the Capital of the Great Republic," Washington Bee, June 22, 1918. This article illustrates both Charlotte Norris's and Eli Nugent's roles as Sunday School teachers at Asbury Chapel, as well as some details surrounding Eli's ordination and the founding of the Asbury Chapel.
  8. Dodd, Jordan, Liahona Research, comp. Washington, D.C. Marriages, 1826-50 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2000. Original data: Washington, DC Marriages, 1826-50. District court records located at Washington, DC. Records extracted from the district courthouse.
  9. Maxfield, "A Century of Colored Sunday School Work at the Capital of the Great Republic," Washington Bee, June 22, 1918. 
  10. "The Negro Character," Emancipator and Free American, December 7, 1843. Article listing Eli Nugent as one of many free blacks who is a testament to the high moral character of free blacks in the northern United States.
  11. Maxfield, "A Century of Colored Sunday School Work at the Capital of the Great Republic," Washington Bee, June 22, 1918. 
  12. [No Title], Salem Anti-Slavery Bugle, October 5, 1848. Article stating that Eli Nugent knew the Edmonson Sisters very well, and taught them at Sunday School for two years; Mary Kay Ricks. Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007), p. 187.
  13. [No Title], The Baltimore Sun, p. 4, June 3, 1854. Newspaper article containing information about "An unfortunate colored woman who formerly lived in Alexandria, and afterwards here with the Rev. Eli Nugent [who] destroyed her life last night by taking laudanum."
  14. [No Title] The National Republican, February 26, 1861. One of several obituaries for Eli Nugent, this particular one describing him as being "much esteemed by all who knew him."
  15. "Association of Oldest Inhabitants," Washington Bee, December 28, 1912. In this article, Eli Nugent's nephew Meshach Nugent, an employee of the United Supreme Court, recalls "the unusual honor extended by [the Supreme Court] when it adjourned to attend the funeral service [of Eli Nugent]"
  16. Hon. Eleanor Holmes Norton. "Special Tribute to Asbury United Methodist Church," Congressional Record- Extension of Remarks, (September 16, 1997) p. E1761.

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