Finding Charity’s Folk
Enslaved and Free Black Women in Maryland

Jessica Millward

How slavery, freedom, and liberation were intertwined in the experiences of African American women


“Digging deeply into the county court records of Maryland, the author presents a remarkable picture of how some enslaved women, including Charity Folks, acquired their freedom. In doing so, she broadens our perspective on female slaves, African American family relationships, and free blacks. Thoroughly versed in a broad literature, she authoritatively discusses a wide range of related topics, including interracial sex, violence, rape, and the relationship between enslaved women’s bodies, freedom suits, and manumission laws.”
—Loren Schweninger, Elizabeth Rosenthal Professor Emeritus of History, University of North Carolina, Greensboro

“Bold and daring in both chronology and content. With incredible new sources, Jessica Millward recovers the lives of African American women in rural Maryland, courageously tackling the complexities of emancipation in early America. Finding Charity’s Folk makes an essential contribution to African American women’s history and to the narrative of American freedom.”
—Erica Armstrong Dunbar, University of Delaware

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Finding Charity’s Folk highlights the experiences of enslaved Maryland women who negotiated for their own freedom, many of whom have been largely lost to historical records. Based on more than fifteen hundred manumission records and numerous manuscript documents from a diversity of archives, Jessica Millward skillfully brings together African American social and gender history to provide a new means of using biography as a historical genre.

Millward opens with a striking discussion about how researching the life of a single enslaved woman, Charity Folks, transforms our understanding of slavery and freedom in Revolutionary America. For African American women such as Folks, freedom, like enslavement, was tied to a bondwoman’s reproductive capacities. Their offspring were used to perpetuate the slave economy. Finding loopholes in the law meant that enslaved women could give birth to and raise free children. For Millward, Folks demonstrates the fluidity of the boundaries between slavery and freedom, which was due largely to the gendered space occupied by enslaved women. The gendering of freedom influenced notions of liberty, equality, and race in what became the new nation and had profound implications for African American women’s future interactions with the state.

Race in the Atlantic World, 1700-1900

Page count: 152
5 b&w photos, 2 diagrams, 1 table
Trim size: 6 x 9


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Jessica Millward is an assistant professor of history at the University of California, Irvine.