The Journey Through Hallowed Ground

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Rockland (Washington County)

Built in 1796 for Frisby Tilghman, Rockland is one of Washington County’s most significant historic sites. Frisby Tilghman was the eldest son of James Tilghman of Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Like many sons of planters from eastern Maryland, Frisby migrated to the western part of the state in the late eighteenth century, where land was plentiful and comparatively low-priced. Trained as a doctor, he married the wealthy Anna Maria Ringgold and turned his hand to farming instead. He helped found a local agricultural society and an academy and earned a reputation as a progressive farmer. Active in civic life, he served four terms in the Maryland House of Delegates, promoted the C&O Canal project, served on bank boards of directors, and formed and commanded a militia unit (he was known as Colonel Tilghman).

Although Tilghman was progressive in agriculture, education, and economic development, he was conservative on issues of slavery and slaveholding. He initiated laws that tightened controls on enslaved people in Washington County, including limiting the number of miles they could travel on Sundays, traditionally their day off when they were often granted passes to visit family members living elsewhere. He instigated the closure of a Sunday School for free blacks operated by local Methodist and Lutheran churches for fear that “slaves should get some benefit of it.”

Despite Frisby Tilghman’s wealth and prominence in the community, a man that he owned as a slave earned wider and more enduring fame. Jim Pembroke, later known as James W. C. Pennington, earned international renown for his human rights advocacy and an autobiography of his early life in slavery. Pennington’s memoir affords a window into slave society on the edge of the South that continues to be acclaimed and widely read. (See profile, below).

The Pembroke family was an important part of the enslaved community at Rockland. Nellie Pembroke and her two oldest children, Robert and James, arrived there around 1810 with their new owner, Frisby Tilghman. Formerly the property of Frisby’s father, James Tilghman, who died in 1809, they were forced to leave Bazil Pembroke—Nellie’s husband and the children’s father—behind. Probably at Nellie’s behest, Frisby Tilghman purchased Bazil Pembroke from his owner and reunited the family at Rockland. Over time, the couple had eleven additional children. Around 1815, Robert and James were apprenticed to tradesmen in Hagerstown, then James returned and learned blacksmithing at Rockland. By 1820 the enslaved community at Rockland consisted of 29 persons: one man over age 45, 6 males and 5 females between ages 26 and 44, 2 males and 1 female between 14 and 25, and 9 males and 5 females under age 14.

Life at Rockland was often harsh for those in slavery. James Pennington believed that Tilghman was basically kind in nature, yet he brooked no opposition or insubordination from those he held as slaves. He dealt harshly with infractions, punishing swiftly with whippings or sale. In his memoir, Pennington related a pivotal incident that deeply wounded their family and prompted his escape. One Monday morning, as Bazil Pembroke bottle-fed a young orphaned lamb, Tilghman railed against three enslaved field hands who had yet to return from their Sunday furlough. He vented his fury on Pembroke and whipped him severely while James was nearby. The incident traumatized the family and proved transformative for James. “In my mind and heart,” he wrote, “I never was a Slave after it.” He escaped in 1827. The rest of the family was sold after Tilghman intercepted a letter from their son. Some years later, Tilghman repurchased the parents. Pennington reported that he helped his father and two brothers find freedom in Canada. He purchased his own freedom as well as that of a younger brother after the brother’s unsuccessful escape attempt.

Resources 

James W. C. Pennington (1807-1870)

Born Jim Pembroke, James W. C. Pennington escaped from slavery at Rockland, the home of Frisby Tilghman, in Washington County, Maryland, in 1827. From this modest beginning he eventually won world renown. After staying six months with Quakers William and Phebe Wright in Adams County, Pennsylvania, Pennington settled in New York. (See a profile of the Wrights on page __). Working first as a coachman, he found spiritual guidance from Presbyterian minister Dr. S. H. Cox and experienced a religious awakening in 1829. At the same time he became involved in abolitionist activities and found them compatible with his study of religion. For a while he taught black children at a school in Long Island. In 1834 he moved to Connecticut where he audited classes in Theology at Yale University and pastored Temple Street Congregational Church, a black congregation. Under his leadership, his church championed abolition and civil rights, and Pennington spoke widely on those issues. He also supported temperance and African missions, but denounced the colonization movement to send free blacks from the United States to settle in Liberia. In 1841 he wrote and published one of the first histories of Africans in America. The same year he became founding president of the Union Missionary Society and raised money for the kidnapped Africans on the slave ship Amistad to return home. As the Connecticut delegate to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1843, Pennington developed an international reputation as a human rights advocate.

Pennington kept his enslaved status secret for decades for fear of discovery and capture, but ultimately found power in it. In 1844 he enlisted an intermediary to contact Frisby Tilghman and negotiate the purchase of his freedom, but the $1,000 price Tilghman set was too high. Pennington publicly told the story of his early life in The Fugitive Blacksmith, first published in 1849. It sold briskly and remains one of the most acclaimed of all slave narratives. That same year the University of Heidelburg recognized his international achievements by awarding him an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree. He attended world peace and abolition conferences in Great Britain and spoke publicly to raise consciousness and funds for the cause. Meanwhile, the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Abolitionists in Scotland, fearing for Pennington’s safety, helped him raise money and successfully purchase his freedom from Tilghman’s estate administrators in 1851. He returned to the United States the same year. He pastored Shiloh Baptist Church in New York City but experienced difficulties in the position and resigned in 1855. His involvement in the Underground Railroad included his own escape, his book, and his assistance to freedom seekers including several family members. In 1848 he raised $50 at Shiloh to help Paul Edmonson purchase his two daughters after their thwarted escape from Washington, DC, on the Pearl. Until his death in 1870 he continued teaching, ministering, and advocating human rights.

Resources

  • Dean Herrin. Forging Freedom: The Fugitive Blacksmith James W. C. Pennington . Catoctin History 1 (Fall 2002), 24-28.

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