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Sept. 27, 2021

Freedom Suits in Maryland & DC, 1790-1864

Slavery was legal in Maryland until November 1, 1864, when a new state constitution prohibited the practice of slavery. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation the year before had declared slaves in the Confederate states to be free, but Maryland was in the union and not included in the proclamation. From the late 18th Century until the Civil War, enslaved families in Prince George’s County, Maryland, brought over a thousand legal suits against hundreds of slaveholding families, arguing for their freedom.

In these freedom suits, enslaved individuals sued for their freedom based on issues of breach of contract or unjust detainment. When an enslaved person won a freedom suit the individual would be granted their freedom, and it could sometimes provide the basis for future lawsuits by family members, but the institution of slavery persisted.

In 1791, Edward Queen, an enslaved man at the White Marsh Plantation in Prince George's County, sued Rev. John Ashton, a Jesuit slaveholder, for his freedom in the Maryland General Court. In Edward Queen’s petition he said he was “descended from a freewoman,” his grandmother, Mary Queen, and thus was being illegally held in bondage. In May 1794 the all-white jury decided that Mary Queen was not a slave, and thus Edward Queen should be freed and awarded 1997 pounds of tobacco, at least a third of which went to Queen’s lawyers.

Despite legal maneuvering by slaveholders to make freedom suits more difficult for the enslaved, as many as 50 of Edward Queen’s enslaved relatives won their own freedom suits on the argument that Mary Queen was not a slave, and thus her descendents should not be enslaved.

Joining me to help us learn more about freedom suits is William G. Thomas III, the Angle Chair in the Humanities and Professor of History at the University of Nebraska, and author of A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. Episode image: "Twenty-eight fugitives escaping from the Eastern Shore of Maryland," Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. The image is in the public domain.

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Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too. In today's episode, we'll be talking about freedom suits. Freedom suits were lawsuits filed by enslaved people against slaveholders, with the claim that the enslaved person should be free. Specifically, we'll be looking at the freedom suits filed in Maryland and in Washington, DC between the late 18th century and the Civil War. The freedom suits were civil suits, not criminal; and they followed a tradition of common law precedent that said that no person could be deprived of liberty without costs. In order to sue for their freedom, enslaved people needed to make an argument that they were being unjustly detained. Slavery was legal in Maryland, all the way until November 1, 1864, when the new state constitution prohibited the practice of slavery. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation the year before, had declared slaves in the Confederate States to be free; but Maryland was in the union and not included in the Proclamation. Maryland did have a statute that granted enslaved people the right to petition for freedom. So if slavery was legal, what arguments did the enslaved people make for their freedom? It's important to note that the arguments were narrowly defined and would apply only to the person bringing the suit or in some cases, their family members. Some enslaved people sued for breach of contract when they had been promised freedom on a future date, by a deed or will that was later reneged on. In other cases, they pointed to an ancestor a few generations back, who was free, arguing that their descendants should also be free. In 1791, Edward Queen, an enslaved man at the White Marsh Plantation in Prince George's County, Maryland, sued Reverend John Ashton for his freedom in the Maryland General Court. Reverend John Ashton was a Jesuit missionary, and one of the founders of Georgetown University. The White Marsh Plantation was one of many plantations in the region, owned and managed by the Jesuits in a private trust later called the Corporation of Roman Catholic Clergymen of Maryland. Ashton oversaw White Marsh, and held Edward Queen individually as a slave. In Edward Queen's petition, he said he was descended from a free woman and thus was being illegally held in bondage. Queen's attorneys were future Supreme Court Justice Gabriel Duvall and future Circuit Court Judge and later US Representative Philip Barton Key, uncle to Francis Scott Key, who would also later argue many freedom suits in court. The history that Edward's family told was that Edward's grandmother, Mary Queen had been a free woman in New Spain, what is now Ecuador, and she had lived in London for three years, and then come to Maryland as an indentured servant. Edward knew the story from his mother and his aunt, and several white men and women remembered Mary Queen. Enslaved people were not permitted to speak in court. Queen's lawyers collected as many depositions as they could, supporting the case that Mary Queen had been free. The first witness they deposed, Richard Disney, was the son of the white midwife who had delivered Mary Queen's daughter Nan. According to Richard Disney, his mother knew that Mary had been free and was being forcefully enslaved.

Several other witnesses recounted similar stories of knowing that Mary Queen had been an indentured servant brought to Maryland by Captain Larkin and sold for a seven year term. Gabriel Duvall's cousin, Caleb Clark, recalled that his mother often heard Mary Queen arguing with James Carroll, the owner of the plantation on which she was enslaved, asking about her freedom. Clark's mother had told him that Carroll would respond that Mary would get her freedom. But he never signed any document to that effect. And when Carroll died, his property, including the people he enslaved, went to the Jesuit Corporation. Ashton's lawyers did not mount a compelling defense. And in May, 1794, the all white jury decided that Mary Queen was not a slave, and thus Edward Queen should be freed and awarded 1,997 pounds of tobacco, at least a third of which went to Queen's lawyers. Despite legal maneuvering by slaveholders, to make freedom suits more difficult for the enslaved, as many as 50 of Edward Queen's enslaved relatives won their own freedom suits on the argument that Mary Queen was not a slave, and thus her descendants should not be enslaved. From the late 18th century until the Civil War, enslaved families in Prince George's County brought over 1000 legal suits against hundreds of slaveholding families. The founding of Washington, DC in 1791, opened another jurisdiction for potential freedom suits as well. In March, 1857, the US Supreme Court heard the case of Dred Scott Vs. Sanford in which Dred Scott was suing for his freedom on the grounds that he had been brought into states where slavery was illegal. Despite the long history of freedom suits, the court under Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled seven to two that Black people, whether free or enslaved, are not US citizens, and thus did not have standing to bring lawsuits to federal court. To help us dive more deeply into the topic of freedom suits. I'm speaking now with William G. Thomas III, the ankle chair in the humanities, and professor of history at the University of Nebraska, and author of the 2020 book, "A Question of Freedom: the Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation's Founding to the Civil War," the source of much of this introduction. I am delighted to talk to you today about these freedom suits. This is just absolutely fascinating history, and I'm glad that you suggested we do an episode because it led me to learn about this. So can you start by telling me just a little bit about how you got interested in in this history and studying it?

William G. Thomas III  8:29  
Thanks, Kelly. Yes, you know, I, about 10 years ago had stumbled across a reference to the Queen v. Hepburn Supreme Court case. And I was actually writing a book review of Kent Newmyer's biography of Justice John Marshall. It's a terrific biography, and Newmyer spent a couple of a couple of pages on freedom cases before the Supreme Court, including the Antelope case and Queen v Hepburn. And I noticed that it was a freedom suit and I didn't know anything about freedom suits that early in American history. I certainly, of course, knew about Dred Scott and his case, the notorious decision of the Supreme Court. But those early freedom suits were a bit of a surprise to me, and particularly to see Francis Scott Key arguing the case for the Queens and, and a strongly worded dissent by Gabriel Duvall in which he says it will be universally admitted that the right to freedom is more important than the right of property. And that was in 1813. And so I went to the National Archives to pull the case file and see about this case, just to look into it. And sure enough, the case files of the 1810 circuit court jury trial, were there. And not only that, but I I found that there were multiple other Queen family freedom suits in that court. And that led me to see a much wider story, a much wider history of hundreds of freedom suits filed in that court and in Maryland earlier in the 1790s. And so what began as one case really quickly developed into a study of all of these freedoms suits, so this explosion of freedom suits in the 1790s in Maryland, and then follow- on cases that the families brought in Washington, DC.

Kelly Therese Pollock  10:37  
So you mentioned going into the National Archives. What what were some of the other sources? Was this mostly things you were able to figure out from the legal records? You know, what, what else did you have to do to sort of dig into this story?

William G. Thomas III  10:51  
Right, well, the case papers that are in the National Archives are of the, are about the Washington District Court, the Circuit Court of Washington, DC. But as I dug into this, almost all of the families who brought cases in DC had earlier cases in Maryland, and so I had to go to the Maryland State Archives and look up those cases in the judgment records and in the dockets of the of the general court of Maryland, and also in the district courts that or the county courts. And so, in effect, many of these freedom suits have been under studied or perhaps invisible, because they're not reported in the printed the printed reports of se crashes, volumes of the DC court, or the Maryland High Court of Appeals appellate decisions, you know. These are, all this is taking place at the at the court level below the appellate level and for that reason, they are relative they were relatively under under studied. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  12:05  
And so while obviously there to fill in the story, there's more than just the the legal records. So what were the other kinds of sources, archives, things that you were digging into, to try to figure out, you know, what, what else was happening and how all of these things connected?

William G. Thomas III  12:23  
Yeah, well, the the first major freedom suits, the Queen case that I was most interested in and the Mahoney case, were filed against the Jesuit priest John Ashton. And so, I went to Georgetown University and looked into the Georgetown records, the enormous voluminous collection of of the Jesuit records in the Maryland province archives. And, and those records were extraordinary because the Jesuits kept extensive records of their farm operations, including at White Marsh, where the Queens and the Mahoneys were and where John Ashton was the Jesuit priest and manager. So those records were, you know, vital. And then I went to yeah, I mean to London to look at cases that had to do with the Jesuits and also what appeared to be a chancery case having to do with the Queen family's ancestor, Mary Queen. The voyage that she came to London on, the voyage of Captain Woodes Rogers, there was a chancery suit after that voyage landed by the creditors of the suit suing Rogers and so it it oh, that collection also documented Mary Queen's landing in London. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  13:52  
At what point as you're putting all this story together, did you realize that there was a connection to your own family?

William G. Thomas III  13:59  
Right? Well, I knew that my, my grandmother's family, the Ducketts were from Prince George's County and and I knew that they were lawyers and judges in the early part of the early national period, and I knew that one of them, Allen Buoy, Duckett had been appointed to the DC Circuit Court, but he, but when I first started out on this, I really I knew they were slaveholders and tobacco planters. But I at first saw really no evidence of their involvement in these cases and, and besides, Allen Buoy Duckett died very young at 35. And, and he was not on the court when the Queen case came before the DC Circuit Court. And so, at first I sort of didn't pay much attention to this aspect of what became a question of freedom. But gradually, you know, further, especially in the Jesuit archives of finding further evidence that Allen Buoy Duckett was a lawyer for the Jesuits and represented them, at least he was on the docket representing them against the Queen freedom suits. And, and then looking into the Queen cases, one of the Ducketts was the judge in the local court, the Prince George's County Court, and he actually presided on the day when more than 20 Queen family members won their freedom. And it's and it was the single largest court decision emancipatory court decision that I can find in the records. And so he clearly led all the evidence in. He may have had his own motives for doing so, they may not have been liberationist motives or emancipatory motives. But in any case, Thomas Duckett was the judge in that court and so gradually, yes, all these family connections became visible in a way to me that they weren't before. And it was a powerful moment of reckoning for me with this, this history and its implications today, especially as I started to encounter and work with and talk with the descendants of these families, including the descendants of people, enslaved by the Ducketts.

Kelly Therese Pollock  16:28  
So I obviously read a lot of books by historians and you know, it's fairly unusual to have that that sort of personal narrative enter into those kind of books, especially a book published by a University Press. It's powerful it was, I loved it, but you know, it, it is unusual to have that. Did as you were sort of thinking about writing the book, you know, what, how, how did you decide to weave in that that personal narrative, the connection to your family, did you get any pushback about about doing that in a scholarly book?  

William G. Thomas III  16:59  
I did not have any pushback about doing that, from either my wonderful editor, Adina Berk, at Yale University Press, who was behind this 100%. And as I thought about this, and talked about it with colleagues and friends, you know, over the course of writing this book, from 2015, 16, 17, to 2019 you know, the reckoning with race and racism in American history, grew more powerfully across society. And, you know, I was, I was part of that. This book comes out of that, that larger moment in American history, when we have been reckoning with this, the legacies of American slavery. And so I wanted to bring the present into this story, the question really was how. And I wanted to bring the present into this story, because to so many of the descendants of the families that I was writing about and talked with, this this history was present to them. It was immediate, it was it was palpably felt history. It was not something that occurred in the such distant past that it wasn't felt. It had present consequences. And I wanted from the beginning to really reflect that in the narrative. And the question was how and so what I ended up doing was really putting these interludes between the chapters to draw the reader into this, this story and to make it relevant to today's today's world. And, and I also thought that if the reader could come along with me on this journey of reckoning, this journey of my own reckoning with this history, then that would be welcoming, it would open the book up to readers in a way and have an emotional, powerful impact on their thinking about not only the past, but the world that they are in today.

Kelly Therese Pollock  19:26  
Yeah, and I think it really works. It makes it very sort of immediate and compelling, and in a way that is great, because you're absolutely what you're saying that we are in this moment now that, you know, I suppose that we've been in this moment for the grand scope of American history, but we continue to be in this moment where we have to figure out what do these legacies of slavery mean for us still today? So, one thing I wanted to sort of talk about in that then is the sort of motivations of the the people in the story. So the motivations of the people who are enslaved seem, you know, fairly obvious why why they are suing for their freedom and the the terrible choices they sometimes need to make. And the motivations of the slave holders while, terrible are also can can sort of be understood. But it's the the attorneys and the lawyers and you know who are in this who are sometimes it feels much more complex and hard to understand. So, you know, when we first sort of encounter Francis Scott Key, and I think, "Oh, great, well, he's arguing on behalf of these enslaved people who are suing for freedom, I guess he's an abolitionist. Great", And it turns out that, that his motivations are so much more complex than that. So can you talk some about that and what is going on and he's including the the enslavers, who are, you know, sort of at one point saying, "Okay, we're going to free all our slaves," and then a couple years laters sort of go back on that, and what is going on with all of these people in the sort of decisions they're making along the way?

William G. Thomas III  21:08  
Well, this is a enormously significant question.

Kelly Therese Pollock  21:12  
And you must have all the answers right, right now,

William G. Thomas III  21:16  
I don't. I will try to try to eliminate what's going on in this story, and what it might mean. You know, it's absolutely true that the Jesuits at one point vote to decide to sell all of the all of the enslaved people they hold in bondage for a restricted term, a period of 3, 4, 5, 10 years, after which they would be free. So the the point of this vote by the Jesuits was to remove themselves from slave holding, and to, at a certain point, free all of the enslaved families they held in bondage, and there were several 100, maybe three or 300 or more, at that moment. They later reversed that decision, you know. So, so, literally, six years later, the Jesuits decide to, not to follow through on that vote of their, of their corporation, their their order. And I think, you know, the motivations are complex, they there is a very real way in which slaveholders, the Jesuits and others, that all the slaveholders in Maryland, are seeking to, you know, see themselves as in a certain light, as benevolent. So at every turn, slaveholders, including Francis Scott Key are more concerned about themselves than they are about the enslaved families they hold in bondage, and it's tempting with the lawyers, especially Key, who represents well over 100 enslaved families in freedom suits. So does Gabriel Duvall, by the way, in Maryland. In fact, Gabriel Duvall, to my count, represented more enslaved families in freedom suits than any other lawyer, including Key. He just does it in the 1790s in Maryland. Key is doing this in the 1810s and 20s and 30s in Washington, DC. But in both of their cases, and in Duvall, we see this clearly, because his an enslaved family he holds in bondage sues him for freedom and and Duvall in the 1820s reacts as all slave holders do. He defends himself and he attempts to quash the freedom suit and remove it to Prince George's County where he would have a far more favorable jury in front of him. And he so he his reaction, his defensiveness, his his unwillingness to countenance such a thing was similar to Henry Clay's, who was sued by Charlotte Dupuy. So we see the reaction of slaveholders and in this story, and I think with Francis Scott Key too, you know, as you put it, the temptation is to look at his representation of freedom suits or the arguments that he's making before the Supreme Court, in the Antelope case, let's say or in Queen v. Hepburn, and conclude that he's speaking for universal freedom and and for these ideals. And to a degree he is, but what I concluded, really is that these freedom suits and Key's involvement in them they're part of his career, too. We can't forget that his self regard is a key part of this. He's, he sees himself as a human humanitarian. He wants to see himself in that way, and these, representing these families, allows him to see himself in this way as benevolent, as humanitarian, as, in his case, a pious and faithful Episcopalian. And so, so he opposes the slave trade, and he is an advocate for colonization. He can only envision Black freedom, though, at the end, really, at the end of the day, he can only envision Black freedom if it comes with colonization, if Blacks are removed from American society. And, you know, that plainly is his is the core of his and of American racism.

Kelly Therese Pollock  25:55  
So what was it about Maryland law, about DC law that, that allowed these suits to happen in a way that we don't see in a lot of other states? And in fact, you talk about when the enslaved people are removed from Maryland, go to other states, and then tried to sue for freedom do not have anywhere near the same kind of success. So what is it about the legal system there that that allows this to happen?

William G. Thomas III  26:22  
Well, first of all, for many of these families, DC is a new jurisdiction. They have already spent 20 years suing for freedom in Maryland and in Virginia. And if they are taken to Washington, DC, for any reason, in fact, if they maneuver to have themselves taken to Washington, DC, then what's open to them is a new jurisdiction. Now, Maryland law applied on the Maryland side of the river, the Potomac River in Washington, DC. And at that time, Alexandria, Virginia was in Washington, DC, on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, and Virginia law applied there. But still, there were the peculiarities of the sort of boundaries that are created by the by the act that creates Washington, DC, allow, allow for enslaved families to bring lawsuits they otherwise might not be able to, particularly around the Virginia and Maryland statutes against the importation of enslaved people. And so, so crossing these boundaries was was a factor and these legal boundaries was a factor. And so I think that's true also, in Missouri, you know, with St. Louis, the number of freedom suits in Missouri, and by the way, there were hundreds of freedom suits all across American courts in the south, and, and even in, in Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, and in Massachusetts. I mean, Clark Walker's case in Massachusetts, effectively ends slavery in Massachusetts. So the freedom suits are, are, are filed by enslaved families all over in every jurisdiction they can reach. Washington, DC happened to be because of its its peculiar border, it's a border within a border, if you will. And it it creates that opportunity. But I will also say that, as much as that was a factor in the number of freedom suits brought, I think the other really more important factor is the depth of these families in Maryland. These were families with three, four or five generations of family in Maryland, who, again, had been filing freedom suits or knew about freedom suits filed as far back as the colonial courts. So the this is, in my view, what I call a public Underground Railroad. The freedom suits are a public, highly political, highly visible means of securing step by step, the freedom of one's family. And so while DC has some peculiarities, the Chesapeake region, the depth of these families experience plays a, I think, a very significant role.

Kelly Therese Pollock  29:25  
Yeah. So you are a digital historian. And I wonder, I think this is a term that people hear and don't don't necessarily understand what it means. Can you talk a little bit about what digital history is and the ways that you've used it with this project?

William G. Thomas III  29:42  
Sure, well, well, digital history is, is the use of technology to create new forms of historical scholarship and new forms of historical narrative and new forms of, of historical archival access. And so in this case in this project, when I went to National Archives, we started with that, that story of going to National Archives. You know, they had an index that was just a paper index of the date that the title of this index was Black Washingtonians. And when the archivist pulled it off the shelf and sort of opened it in front of me, and, and I saw what this was, I was astounded. It was an it was an index that an archivist at National Archives had had compiled of all of the case files of the DC court from 1800 to 1862, every mention of a Black of a Black plaintiff or defendant or witness or, or participant. And so it's like, it was like a, you know, a key to a door, right? I mean, I just I couldn't believe okay, here is an index that allows us as historians to really focus on, say, the freedom suits, and they were all listed there, all of the Queen cases, others throughout 18. So here at the University of Nebraska, we have an extraordinary Center for Digital Research in the Humanities. And one of the first things I did to start this research was to write a grant to get some support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Yay, the National Endowment for the Humanities is so important for all of our work, the fellowships, the public, the public scholar, fellowships, all of this work that historians do. And we received, we received NEH support to digitize all of the freedom suit case files, and so on more than 500 of these freedom suit case files were digitized. We had some help from the University of Maryland, College Park, and their Institute for Technology in Humanities. So it was a joint effort. And those are all available online now and at the at the earlyWashington website. And so if you're interested in any of these freedom suits, the Queen case, or any of the other cases, they're available now in a way that they weren't before. And the effect of this is that, as I mentioned, the printed volumes that historians have had to date to use up until this point, crashes, reports of the DC court routinely cranch did not include the last names of enslaved people. So it you know, it was Negro Ben versus Sabrett Scott. And the same for Priscilla Queen, I think her initial case was her last name was not mentioned. So by digitizing these, making them available, and seeing the genealogical information within these cases in which depositions were taken and, and depose the family members would explain the full ancestry, the full history of how everyone in their family is related to one another. All of that is now available on the website. And so so digital history sort of exposes the archival materials that have not been available to scholars and to teachers and to students, and relates them in ways that technology creates the possibility for further inquiry and new forms of inquiry. And so, so that's the bedrock of this study that I was doing with freedom suits.

Kelly Therese Pollock  33:58  
And for anyone with a dust allergy like me, this is an incredibly exciting thing that you can get access to archives without the dust of archives.

William G. Thomas III  34:07  
Right, exactly. That's a side benefit of digital history. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  34:11  
Yeah. So and the other thing then you're doing with, with the stories, well, sort of two things, but one is this animating history that you're doing and putting these into to really neat animated stories. Can you talk a little bit about that and what that process looks like?

William G. Thomas III  34:32  
Right? Well, we are working on several films. This is a collaboration with a screenwriter and English professor here Kwakiutl Dreher, she's also a director and an actor, and Michael Burton, who is a artist and animator and visual effects, lead visual effects artist. So the three of us have been collaborating for several years now to try to use what I would call our historical imagination, to work around the silences in the archives, and to illuminate the world that these families experienced. And so we started with Ann Williams, the case that she she brought a freedom suit in the 1830s. But 15, 17 years earlier in 1815, she had leapt out of a third floor window at Miller's Tavern, which was effectively a slave jail. And it was widely reported, it's widely known in the historical literature. And we wanted to sort of use our historical imagination to see her her moment of decision and what she faced in being taken from her family in Prince George's County, sold into the slave trade in 1815, and, and taken to Washington, DC. You know, we want to especially illuminate and understand freedom seekers, like Ann Williams, and like, Daniel and Mary Bell, whose story we're working on right now, as a feature length film, we want to illuminate their, their actions. These were legal and pull, they were legal and political actors in this history in this moment, so we really want to follow their actions and show those actions for what they were. They had extraordinary political import, and they were, they were public, they were performed. They were, they were claims of freedom. And so these freedom stories are ones that we're concentrating on. And we began with the 11 minute short film of Ann Williams. And we're now working on a feature length film that we're almost finished with that will come out in early 2022, called "The Bell Affair."

Kelly Therese Pollock  37:23  
And the trailer for it is online. People can go see.

William G. Thomas III  37:27  
 Yes, we just just put it out.

Kelly Therese Pollock  37:29  
 And then the other project that you're working on is the freedom stories. That is going to be a two year collaboration in Prince George's County. And this is super interesting and innovative. And so can you talk a little bit about what that project is?

William G. Thomas III  37:46  
I'm I'm thrilled with this partnership with Joe's Movement Emporium. It's a theater, a community theater, nonprofit, and theatre and performance space. And they are doing so many things to to build creative works around Prince George's County, and in this case around Prince George's County history. And so they will be taking, adapting the book "A Question of Freedom" into a performance. And they were they have, they've gotten support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the NEA and from Maryland Humanities, and other organizations, cultural organizations. And they've commissioned the performance play. And the playwright is Psalmayene 24, a local rock star of the theater in Washington, DC. And he's amazing and talented and creative and inspiring. And his work will bring these stories to stage. And so the collaboration is is wonderful, and it's local, and it's history being brought into the community in ways that I just am so excited to see and pleased to be a part of I'm just amazed and honored to be a part of it. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  39:11  
Yeah, I love these, these super innovative, interesting ways of getting history out into the community and, and making it more accessible. So I could probably keep asking you questions all day, but is there anything else you wanted to make sure that we talked about today?

William G. Thomas III  39:28  
Well, I think we've, I think we've we've, we've covered in you know, your title of your podcast is Unsung History. And, you know, the, the story of Charles Mahoney is just I think where we might conclude because when I started out on this project, I didn't realize what his his freedom suit really meant, but here's a here's a man who filed a freedom suit that took 12 years to litigate it. It went through three jury trials, two appeals, and at the end of it, you know, the, through some sort of tactics, perhaps underhanded tactics of the attorneys, he was he was not free, despite an earlier jury trial that declared his freedom. And so he negotiates for his freedom, probably purchases it somehow. And then, you know, 12 years later, he purchases the freedom of his daughter, Ann. And so the Mahoney story is extraordinary for the example of courage, determination, legal sophistication, knowledge, multi- generational freedom making, and you know, Charles Maloney's freedom quest took 25 years to unfold. And so, I think, more than any other Marylander, he put the question of freedom before his society at his in his day, and it's it's an extraordinary and important chapter of American history that we've not acknowledged. And I hope we will. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  41:18  
Yeah, absolutely. And I will put in the show notes, links to these projects that I mentioned, to the, and links to your book as well. So I hope people will check that out. Because there's, of course, much, much more to this story than what we're able to cover in a podcast. So thank you so much for speaking with me about this. And thank you for suggesting this as a topic. It was just absolutely fascinating to learn about.

William G. Thomas III  41:47  
Thank you, Kelly. I really appreciate it.

Teddy  41:50  
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode at To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter or Instagram @Unsung__History, or on Facebook at Unsung History Podcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.


William G. Thomas IIIProfile Photo

William G. Thomas III

William “Will” Thomas is the Angle Chair in the Humanities and Professor of History at the University of Nebraska. He was co-founder and director of the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia. A Guggenheim Fellow and a Lincoln Prize Finalist, Will has collaborated across disciplines to create imaginative forms of history.

He is the author of A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War (November 2020, Yale University Press). With partners Michael Burton and Kwakiutl Dreher, Will is a co-founder of Salt Marsh Productions, LLC, and Animating History.