Black History Month

Riley’s Pick
Manumission: Kate Waters and her children, 1832


In celebration of Black History Month, I wanted to share the above document found within the collection.  Recently I had the pleasure of working on a new map for the Historically Black Communities of Sandy Spring project.  Throughout this endeavor, I learned about Mr. Samuel Owens, an African American Civil War soldier, who owned the land that the Olney Ale House occupies today.

The accomplishments of Samuel Owens cannot be understated considering the tremendous obstacles facing him and many other free Black landowners in 19th century Sandy Spring.  Mr. Owens would eventually marry a woman named Sarah Waters and together they would have seven children.

The document I chose to highlight is a manumission order signed by Nathaniel Waters of Montgomery County in 1832 releasing an eight-year-old girl named Sarah Ann, as well as her mother and five siblings from bondage.  The terms of the order specified that Sarah Ann and her sisters were to continue to be held until their eighteenth birthday, while her brother had to wait until he reached his 20th year of age to be manumitted.

While genealogical records for many African American families are often spotty and sparse, wouldn’t it be wonderful to know that eight-year-old Sarah Ann Waters is the very same that grew up and married the accomplished Samuel Owens, raising a happy and healthy family consisting of seven children right here in Sandy Spring?

Lydia’s Pick
Account ledger: John W. and Sarah Johnson with Dr. Caleb Edward Iddings, 1884


That 2020 was “a year like no other” is a refrain often followed by declarations of collective resolve and sacrifice. For the family of John W. Johnson, an African American farm laborer, the same could be said for 1884; though no less resolute than today’s pandemic weary citizens, the family singularly bore the brunt of their unprecedented year.

John, his wife Sarah, and their ten children lived in a tenant house on Mary Needles Robert’s land, just next to Sandy Spring Museum’s property. As deduced from an account ledger, a series of mishaps and recovery issues had local physician Dr. Caleb Edward Iddings visiting the Johnson family thirty-three times in the first three months of 1884, the most visits to any family the doctor would conduct throughout the entire year.

The family’s year began with treatment and recovery for a gunshot wound suffered presumably by one of Mary and John’s eight sons. On February 25 John suffered a severe hand injury from a fallen tree that Dr. Idding’s treated for over a week before needing to amputate one of John’s fingers. The doctor visited John daily for two weeks to dress his wound but eventually sent him to the Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C. on March 21 to complete his recovery.

The cost of each visit following the amputation was a staggering two dollars and with the bills for the surgery and previous visits, the Johnson family faced an unimaginable financial burden on a farm laborer’s wage. Most of the family’s remaining ledger entries for that year – and there are many – record their debt being settled through the labor of John and Mary’s sixteen-year-old son Thaddeus and fourteen-year-old son Samuel. The ledger shows the account finally paid in full on April 24, 1885. I cannot presume to know the Johnsons’ family dynamics simply from ledger entries, but they certainly appear to be tough as nails, devoted to one another, and in possession of an impressive character and resolve – a kind of family I would certainly have welcomed knowing.

For some context, in 1884 African Americans accounted for no less than thirty percent of Dr. Iddings’ total number of patients, yet only twenty percent of the total number of visits; local Black households averaged 2.8 visits whereas their white neighbors saw the doctor an average of 5 times that same year. Indeed, racial inequities in healthcare persist at crisis levels today; that it existed in Sandy Spring 137 years ago is hardly surprising. This fact makes John W. Johnson and his family’s perseverance in the face of such a monumental plight all the more mind blowing; if I could part the curtains of time and reach through to shake John and Sarah’s hands and maybe even offer a hug, I would definitely jump at the chance.