An "oppressed people": Brookeville's Large Free Black Community

The rural town which President Madison found in the summer of 1814 was far more diverse than most historical accounts of Brookeville suggest. Free African American families began settling in and around Brookeville, encouraged by the town's Quakers' moral concern for the challenges they faced. By August, 1814, African Americans were a large, successful, and visible presence in the town. Freed men and women lived and worked in Brookeville and the surrounding neighborhoods, often in the homes of the town's well-known Quaker residents. Yet even though Brookeville's Quakers helped to create a nurturing environment, the town was not entirely free from the stereotypes and inequalities of the time. Though too often overlooked, the experiences of African Americans living in Brookeville are an integral part of the town's rich history.  

    A Burgeoning Free Community

Realizing the immorality of the human slave trade earlier than most Americans, Brookeville's Quaker residents freed (or promised to free) all of their slaves by a legal action known as "manumission." The abundant amount of manumissions by Brookeville's Quakers between the 1770s and 1820s caused the free African American population living around the town to expand drastically. In response to the growing number of free African Americans in the area, the Quaker Meeting at Indian Spring placed great emphasis on supporting the free population in and around Sandy Spring. In Brookeville, residents took seriously the Society of Friends' urging that free African Americans "be treated with kindness, and, as objects of the common salvation..."[1] 

Read the forgotten names of many of Brookeville's freed slaves

That faithful environment of support encouraged the development of a large and thriving African American community in the area surrounding Brookeville. During the early 1800s, the neighborhoods around Brookeville contained a higher concentration of free African Americans than almost anywhere else in the state.[2] In 1810, free blacks made up 13% of the local population surrounding Brookeville- only Prince George's County and the Eastern Shore had denser African American populations.[3] Even more indicative of the strength of the free black community around Brookeville was the independence of African American families there: though they made up 13% of the population, over 17% of the households in the Brookeville area were headed by African Americans. Nearly two-thirds of free blacks in the area lived in an independent household headed by another African American.[4] In Brookeville, such a large population of free African Americans nearby meant that the town's white residents interacted with freed men and women on a daily basis.

    Caring for Free Men and Women

Most of the town's aid to African American community members was in the form of employment or patronage. Many Quaker households were home to African American boarders, many of whom were likely working as domestic servants. Bernard Gilpin, Thomas Moore, David Newlin, and Richard Thomas Jr., among others, all provided housing to free African Americans.[5] For a short period of time, Caleb Bentley and his first wife Sarah cared for a young African American girl named Nancy, who probably worked as a servant in their home.[6] Others, like Deborah Stabler, provided for the care of impoverished free black neighbors in their wills.[7] Some Friends hired freed men and women to do work around the town: Gerard Brooke and others routinely employed men and women to do laborious tasks like hauling goods and farming.[8]

Brookeville's Quakers also sold and donated land to free persons. In 1826, James P. Stabler, a resident of Brookeville, gave a parcel of land “for the Free people of colour inhabiting and residing near Sandy Spring Meeting house… to erect a building to be used exclusively for a house of worship and schoolhouse.” That site became home to the Sharp Street Methodist Church, which stood just down the street from the Quakers' own meetinghouse.[9] Gerard Brooke sold land worth $750, a considerable sum at the time, to George and Ceasar Williams, two free black men. Brooke's transaction was off the record and Brooke never recalled the Williams' debt, perhaps in an attempt to avoid legal limitations to land-owning by free African Americans.[10]

The members of the Sandy Spring meeting were passionate about protecting the independence and freedom of the free African Americans in their communities. In 1801, a group of Quakers from Maryland presented a petition to the State Legislature out of concern for "Many of the African race, who by the Laws of this State are subjected to the absolute will and disposal of such as hold them in bondage, [and] have been of late inhumanly torn from every near and dear connection, and conveyed to distant states..."[11] Years later, Brookeville's Quakers were still fighting for increased legal protection for free people- another group of Quakers, including Thomas Moore, also petitioned the General Assembly in Annapolis to protect the freedom of freed slaves who were being kidnapped and sold back into slavery out of state.[12] Isaac Briggs, a member of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, actively aided a free man in his community from being sold as a slave.[13]

Learn about the traditional Quaker values which guided life in Brookeville

    A Case of Extraordinary Aid

While these simpler forms of support were most common in Brookeville, the Quakers in town also supported free African Americans who were confronted by a legal system which denied them many rights. Brookeville's residents were deeply involved in a legal battle which took place between one of the town's African American residents, Ceasar Williams, and another Quaker from Anne Arundel County. Ceasar, a free African American, lived just outside Brookeville on a farm that he rented from Caleb Bentley. In 1805, the State declared Ceasar's brother, Robert Williams, to be legally insane. As a result, all of Robert's land and property were placed under the guardianship of a Quaker man named Jerome Plummer. Significantly, this meant that Plummer now had legal control over Roberts' wife and children. Robert had already purchased his family's freedom, but the courts construed them as slaves who were still "owned" by Robert. 

When Plummer attempted to sell Robert's enslaved wife and children, Caesar stepped in and took Robert to Brookeville's safe haven. In the ensuing court battles, some of Brookeville's residents (including Caleb Bentley and Richard Thomas) gave character testimony aiding Ceasar and his efforts to ensure his relatives' freedom.[14] Thanks in part to the support of well-known and influential men, Ceasar won his case and the Maryland General Assembly ordered the court to free Robert's family forever.[15] By 1812 Caesar was still living close by Brookeville and the aid he received from the Quakers there had not ceased. When Caesar was later accused of purchasing stolen goods, some of the town's residents testified to his good character once again and the charges were inexplicably dropped.[16] Caesar Williams' story is a remarkable account of Friends' devotion to helping their African American neighbors succeed.

For more information on the Roberts family and their legal troubles, read Roberts' biography

     An Inclusive Community, or Not?

Sometimes Quaker obligations to the freed community went unfulfilled. In Brookeville, the largest shortfall was in education. The Yearly Meeting declared that Friends must ensure that free blacks were "instructed in the principles of the Christian religion as well as in such branches of school learning as may fit them for freedom, and to become useful members of civil society.[17] But at Indian Spring, the Monthly Meeting repeatedly noted that the education of freed slaves living in Friends' households was, "in general too much neglected."[18] Though women Friends at Sandy Spring tried to rectify that shortcoming by founding a school for free blacks in 1812, the idea was never approved by the men's meeting and Sandy Spring never established such a school.[19]

More importantly, even though some helped African Americans establish their own houses of worship, Brookeville's Quakers made no effort to include African Americans in their own religious society. Most Quaker communities around the country favored segregation over inclusion.  While most Quaker Meetings did not exclude African Americans from attending worship at the meetinghouse, those that did so often established segregated areas which relegated African American attendees to the gallery or back wall during worship.[20] Quakers were also loathe to invite black people into formal membership. In 1795, a Friend from Pennsylvania poignantly argued that Quakers "are the only people I know who make any objections to the Blacks or People of Color joining them in Church Fellowship." Historians have only been able to identify forty African American members of the Society of Friends across the entire United States during the nineteenth century. There is no evidence that African Americans, enslaved or free, were ever invited to join the Sandy Spring Meeting in full membership.[21]

Brookeville's Quakers were obviously devoted to ensuring the welfare of free African American people who lived in and around the town and the growth of an independent and prosperous free black community nearby demonstrates the success of the Quakers' efforts. But as with slavery, Brookeville's Quakers' support did have limitations. Though Friends in Brookeville protected the freedom of the men and women in their immediate community, Brookeville's residents took no radical steps to encourage greater equality and inclusion on a state or national scale. As with slaves, Quakers’ relationships with their freed neighbors were both complex and varied. 

More about Brookeville's residents' interesting struggle with slavery

Despite these limitations, Brookeville's support for antislavery and the freed community should not be underestimated. The residents' willingness to manumit their slaves and freely give aid to the freedmen in their communities is unlike anything done by non-Quakers at the time. However, Brookeville's residents and the majority of Friends were not radicals. The methods of support they gave to the antislavery movement and free blacks alike indicate that they had little desire to radically alter the status quo and upend their communities. Such changes would instead grow more slowly throughout Maryland and the country alike.

Megan O'Hern, 2014

Return to Explore Brookeville's Community


  1. ^ “The Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of Friends held in Baltimore,” (1806-7) in Baltimore Yearly Meeting, Religious Society of Friends, Minutes, 1790-1850, p. 275 [MSA SC 2400 SCM 549-1].

  2. ^ Based on research conducted on the United States Census of 1810 for the Maryland State Archives by Jackson Gilman-Forlini, DAR Research Fellow, 2012.

  3. ^ Based on research conducted on the United States Census of 1810 for the Maryland State Archives by Jackson Gilman-Forlini, DAR Research Fellow, 2012.

  4. ^ Based on research conducted on the United States Census of 1810 for the Maryland State Archives by Jackson Gilman-Forlini, DAR Research Fellow, 2012.

  5. ^ This statement is based on the United States Census for the 4th district of Montgomery county taken between 1790 and 1820.

  6. ^ Deborah Thomas for Hannah Briggs and Margaret Elgar, "account of Sarah Bentley's last illness and dying expression," Sandy Spring Museum, Sandy Spring MD. It is unknown if Nancy worked as a servant in the Bentley home or if the couple took her in solely to raise her.

  7. ^ MONTGOMERY COUNTY REGISTER OF WILLS (Estate Record) 9 Dec. 1839, Last Will and Testament of Deborah Stabler, Liber Z, p.220 [MSA C1138-27].

  8. ^ SPECIAL COLLECTIONS (Mary Farquhar Green Collection) Account book of Gerard Brooke, 1802-1821 [MSA SC 566-1-98, 00/09/06/06].

  9. ^ MONTGOMERY COUNTY COURT (Land Records) 11 March 1826, Liber Y, pp. 304-5, Deed in Trust, James P. Stabler to William Thomas and Basil Brooke, "Addition to Charley's Forest" for use by the free black community [MSA CE 148-26].  The church still operates on the same plot of land today, though the original church building was destroyed around 1885 and has been rebuilt numerous times.

  10. ^ SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, Mary Farquhar Green Collection, Account book of Gerard Brooke, 1812 transaction with Ceasar and George Williams [MSA SC 566-1-98, 00/09/06/06].

  11. ^ William Cook Dunlap, Quaker Education in Baltimore and Virginia. Yearly Meetings with an account of certain meetings of Delaware and the eastern shore affiliated with Philadelphia (Philadelphia: n.p., 1936), pp. 483-484.

  12. ^ Letter, Thomas Moore to Dear Brother (Isaac Briggs), Retreat, 11/12/1803, Brookeville Letters Vertical File, Sandy Spring Museum, Sandy Spring MD; see also General Assembly, Votes and Proceedings of the House of Delegates, November Session 1803, p. 18, Archives of Maryland Online [MSA SCM 3198, p. 394].

  13. ^ While living in Delaware, Briggs and another member of an abolitionist society rode to the state's capital to discuss a law protecting slaves with the governor, a U.S. Senator, and a state judge. They sought to obtain a record of a manumission to protect the freedom of one African American in their community. See Isaac Briggs' Notebook, Volume 6, Briggs-Stabler Papers, MS 147, Maryland Historical Society

  14. ^ CHANCERY COURT (Chancery Papers), Anthony Smith, et. al. vs. Robert Williams. 6 Aug. 1806. Deposition of Caleb Bentley, Richard Thomas, Samuel Brooke, John Thomas attesting to Ceaser's good character. For a more complete description of this event, see the biographies of Ceasar Williams and Robert Williams.

  15. ^ Anne Arundel County Court, Manumission Record, 1797-1807. Archives of Maryland Online, Volume 825, p. 259; Session Laws of 1805, Ch. 56, Archives of Maryland Online, Volume  607, pg. 32.

  16. ^ MONTGOMERY COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT (Court Papers) State of Maryland vs. Ceaser Williams. March 1820, Criminal Appearances, no. 61 [MSA T414-31, 03/55/06/17].

  17. ^ "The Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of Friends held in Baltimore” (1806-7) in Baltimore Yearly Meeting, Religious Society of Friends, Minutes, 1790-1850, p. 275 [MSA SC 2400 SCM 549-1].

  18. ^ Indian Spring Monthly Meeting; Minutes (Sandy Spring), 1772-1817, 07/13/1803 [MSA SC 2978 SCM 638-1].

  19. ^ Sandy Spring and Indian Spring Monthly Meeting of Women Friends; Minutes, 1811-1824, 12/20/1811 [MSA SC 2411, SCM 667-2]. 

  20. ^ McDaniel and Julye, Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship, 182-183 and 195.

  21. ^ McDaniel and Julye, Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship, 180-181 and 185. The protestor, Joseph Drinker, suggests that Quakers' unwillingness to include freedmen as members of their society might have stemmed from concerns about interracial marriage, though there are gaps in the Sandy Spring Meeting Records.