Samuel Green (b.
1802 - d. 1877)
MSA SC 3520-13785
Arrested for possession of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Dorchester County, 1857
Alleged accomplice to slave flight, 1854 - 1857
Samuel Green, a Dorchester County Maryland free man of color, was arrested and jailed for possession of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe. His case explores freedom of speech and of the press in a slave state during the 1850s.
Samuel Green was born into slavery in East New Market, Maryland, around 1802. He worked as a farm slave in the fields of Dorchester County. While enslaved Samuel married a fellow bondsman named Catherine or "Kitty", with whom he later had two children, Samuel, Jr. (b. 1829) and Susan (b. 1831).1 Green's owner, Henry Nichols, died in 1832, bequeathing the black man his freedom five years later. During the next year, Samuel earned enough money to pay off his remaining four years of service.2 In 1842, he was able to purchase his wife Kitty for $100 from her owner Ezekial Richardson.3 Despite Richardson's assertion that she was a slave for life, Green freed his wife that same day. Although Samuel and Kitty were free, their children remained slaves, becoming the property of Dr. James Muse around 1847.
Unlike many blacks of the time period, Green was fortunate enough to receive at least some education. He was a "licensed exhorter" in the local Methodist Episcopal church; his title only allowed him to serve fellow blacks officially, as only whites could become full ministers with wider-ranging responsibilities.4 Nevertheless, he became quite a prominent man in the growing free African-American community. Green was also recognized for his honesty and industry, which gained him favor among blacks and whites alike. He was one of several Dorchester blacks who went to Baltimore to attend the Convention of Free Colored People in 1852, which sought to resolve the colonization issue.5 However, it is unclear what position Green specifically took on the possibility of relocating black Marylanders to West Africa, or other proposed locations. In 1855, Samuel and Kitty are also believed to have journeyed to Philadelphia for the National Convention of the Colored People, representing the so-called "cotton states."6 The Greens were therefore not just leaders in the local context, but became cultural and religious leaders for Eastern Shore blacks on a regional level. While Dorchester whites may not have been aware of his extensive activism, Samuel Green clearly came to embody the type of freedman that they viewed as a threat to the established social hierarchy.
Samuel Green most likely used his literacy to educate local blacks, free and enslaved. He probably taught his children basic reading and writing skills, as evidenced by letters that Samuel, Jr. sent from his new home in Canada.7 Green's son successfully escaped from Maryland in 1854, having had his experience recorded by William Still in Philadelphia. In his station journal, Still noted that Harriet Tubman had given the young man directions when she visited the previous spring.8 The Greens were certainly acquainted, perhaps closely, with Harriet, and it is also possible that they were related through her mother, the former Rit Green. During her various journeys back to Dorchester County, Tubman utilized Samuel Green's home as a safehouse for herself and several fugitives.9 The respect that he had garnered from the white community over the years likely kept him from being violently confronted for such alleged crimes, as had happened to other suspected accomplices. Though none of these prior instances could be substantiated by local whites, it was his son's flight that ironically led to Green losing his own freedom. However, the first unfortunate outcome of Samuel's escape was that Muse sold his sister Susan to an owner in Missouri, permanently separating her from her husband and two young children.10
The aforementioned letters would prove to be a further detriment to his father. In one letter, written in 1854, Samuel Jr. directly named Peter Jackson and Joe Bailey, who he encouraged join him up North.11 Jackson fled soon after in 1854. A group including Bailey and Peter Pennington definitely passed through Sam Sr.'s East New Market home during their successful flight in late 1856. This fact was not lost on the Dorchester County courts that later convicted Samuel Sr. During the winter of 1856-1857, Green had visited his son in Canada, and began to make plans for he and Kitty to relocate there. Almost immediately after their return, another large group of Dorchester slaves, who came to be known as the Dover Eight, made a dramatic and highly-publicized escape from the area.12 This was seemingly the last straw for local slaveholders, who had been losing their property to the North at an alarming rate throughout the preceding decade. As far as whites were concerned, there must have been an accomplice or at least someone who had encouraged the bondsmen with radical ideas about freedom.
Suspicion regarding Samuel Green and any role he may have had in aiding slaves began to build in the community. Being a learned free black with contacts within the local slave circles, he was especially vulnerable to these notions. Soon after his return from Canada, Sheriff Robert Bell conducted a search of Green's home.13 Among the items found were Samuel, Jr.'s letters, a map and other items pertaining to his trip, and at least one volume of Uncle Tom's Cabin. This last item had been given to Green by a local blacksmith, possibly Richard Moore, another free black with whom he was acquainted. Samuel Green was arrested on April 4, 1857, and soon after faced two charges related to his possession of "abolition papers of an inflammatory character," and "a certain abolition pamphlet called 'Uncle Tom's Cabin ... calculated to create discontent amongst the colored population'" Though he was also suspected of aiding and enticing fugitives, the state's attorney Charles F. Goldsborough decided that there was not sufficient evidence to support that accusation in court.14
The novel in question was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and published in 1852. She was an anti-slavery activist, whose story was influenced by interviews with ex-slaves, and allegedly the details of former Maryland fugitive Josiah Henson's narrative.15 The fictionalized account detailed the harsh realities of the plantation system and the slave trade utilized by allegedly benevolent planters. The novel elicited considerable anger from Southerners, who bristled at a Northerner criticizing the institution in what they perceived as an inaccurate representation. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850 and the bloody battles in Kansas several years later, distinct lines were being drawn between supporters and opponents of slavery's existence. It was becoming increasingly dangerous below the Mason-Dixon line, particularly on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, to possess anything with even a hint of abolitionist sentiment.
Due to the lack of precedence regarding abolitionist literature, much of the trial became a debate as to whether Uncle Tom's Cabin should be considered "insurrectionary in intent."16 Despite being a Dorchester slave holder himself, Green's lawyer James Wallace vigorously contested these characterizations and made a genuine attempt to defend his client. Green was acquitted of the first charge, but after a two week trial, he was found guilty of the second stated charge. Judge Thomas A. Spence was satisfied that the novel did indeed fit those legal qualifications under the 1841 Legislative Act.17 Green's possession of the "abolition handbill" was deemed a felony and on May 14, 1857 he was sentenced to the minimum of ten years at the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore.18 The case and its outcome were extremely unique, to say the least; there have been no other documented cases of an individual being convicted simply for possessing a book with anti-slavery leanings.
Word of Green's case soon spread throughout the country, and many could not believe that the events had actually occurred. Support for Green began to build and letters arrived at Governor Thomas Watkins Ligon's door in favor of pardon. Letters from Dorchester County slave holders also arrived, stating that Green should remain behind bars, and that he was to blame for many slave runaways in the area. The barrage of petitions continued as Thomas Holliday Hicks, a native of Dorchester County, was elected as Governor in November 1857.19 Over 100 Northern Methodist Episcopal ministers signed a petition asking for his pardon, though members from his local religious community were hesitant to take a collective position on Green's situation. Hicks, a firm believer in the right of citizens to own slaves, had a strong distaste for abolitionists, and declared that Green would remain in jail as long as he was in office. The Governor also believed that if he pardoned Green he would be "called an abolitionist and mobbed," which he likely believed given local attitudes about the issue.20 However, his successor, Augustus W. Bradford, granted Green a conditional pardon in March 1862, stating that he had to leave the State within sixty days.21
Kitty and Samuel Sr. made off for Canada to join their son, but made numerous stops along the way. The notoriety of Green's case had put him in high demand in abolitionist circles. He made speeches throughout the East Coast, working with such major figures as William Still and William Lloyd Garrison. Green was even able to meet Harriet Beecher Stowe, who gave him a new copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin, which he had been unable to finish due to his imprisonment.22 It is unknown whether the Green's actually settled for a time in Sam Jr's Ontario community. The two were back in Dorchester County by 1870, then ultimately made their way to Baltimore City, where Sam and Kitty joined the Orchard Street Methodist Episcopal Church.23 He was buried at "South Baltimore Cemetery," which may have referred to Mt. Auburn, the primary resting site for African-Americans at that time. 24 Samuel Green died in 1877, nearly twenty years after the events that endeared him to anti-slavery activists, while earning the scorn of the institution's defenders.25
1. Ancestry.com. 1850 United States Federal Census, Dorchester County, District 1, p. 206.
2. Richard A. Blondo, Samuel Green: A Black Life in Antebellum Maryland. Unpublished M.A. Thesis. University of Maryland, 1988.
3. DORCHESTER COUNTY COURT (Chattel Records) 1827-1851, Book ER 2, pp. 475-476.
4. Blondo, p. 7.
5. "Colored Colonization Convention" Baltimore Sun, 27 July 1852.
6. Kate Clifford Larson. Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2004, p. 123.
7. Letter from Sam Green Jr. to Samuel Green, Sr., 10 September 1854
8. William Still, Journal C, Station Number 2, 1853-1854, p. 99.
9. Larson, p. 124.
10. "Out of Jail - The Black Man Who Was Imprisoned for Reading Uncle Tom's Cabin," New York Herald-Tribune, 21 June 1862.
11. Letter from Sam Green, Jr.
12. Larson, p. 140.
13. Blondo, p. 24.
14. Ibid, pp. 28-29.
15. Archives of Maryland (Biographical Series), Josiah Henson, MSA SC 5496-8783.
16. Blondo, p. 29.
17. Ibid, p. 31.
18. Ibid, p. 29.
19. GOVERNOR (Miscellaneous Papers), Petition of Dorchester Slaveholders, 1857 MSA S 1274-56.
20. "Speech of Rev. Samuel Green". The Liberator, 15 August 1862.
21. SECRETARY OF STATE (Pardon Record) 1845-1865, pp. 339-340.
22. Stowe, Harriet Beecher, "Simon the Cyrenian", The Independent Vol. XIV, No. 17. July 31, 1862.
23. Ancestry.com. 1870 United States Federal Census, Dorchester County, District 2, p. 49.
24. "A Reminiscence of Slavery Times" Baltimore American, 23 March 1877.
25. BALTIMORE CITY HEALTH DEPARTMENT, BUREAU OF VITAL STATISTICS (Death Record) 1874-1949, # 15965.
Researched and Written by David Armenti, 2011.
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