Certificate of freedom and silk purse, 1849. Loaned by Rev. Howard Haywood and Karen Haywood. Enlarge image.

On August 30, 1849, Louisa Magruder Addison, a twenty-three-year-old, freeborn, African-American woman, registered her free status with the Prince George's County, Maryland, court clerk. By state law, she had to obtain a certificate of freedom to travel out of the county in which she had been born free. Sometime between 1867 and 1870, Louisa and her family moved to Newton, Massachusetts. She brought with her the certificate she obtained that August day, carefully folded within a silk purse.

The Maryland certificate is stamped with the Prince George's County Court seal. Kept folded for over 150 years, the certificate cannot be safely laid flat. It reads:

State of Maryland Prince Georges County Seat

I hereby Certify that the bearer hereof, Louisa Addison formerly Louisa Magruder about twenty three years of age five feet five inches high with a scar on the left shin, which came from the bite of a dog, is a free woman of color and became entitled to her freedom by virtue of her being the reputed daughter of Matilda Magruder who was also a free woman, the said Louisa Addison was born and raised in the neighborhood of Alexandria Ferry in the state and county aforesaid;

Martenet's Map of Prince George's County, Maryland, c. 1861: This map shows the location of Louisa Magruder's birthplace, Alexandria Ferry, Maryland. This community grew up around the terminus of the ferry that went across the Potomac River to Alexandria, Virginia. Enlarge image.

In Testimony whereof I have hereto set my hand and affix the seal of Prince Georges County Court this 30th day of August Anno Domini 1849,

Mr. B. Brooke Clk

Reading the certificate of Freedom

Here are some issues to consider when you read the certificate of freedom issued to Louisa Addison:

  • Why might Louisa's maiden and married last names, "Magruder" and "Addison," be the same as those of two major slave-owning families in Prince George's County?
  • Why does the clerk use the words "reputed daughter of" in reference to Louisa Addison and her mother Matilda Magruder?
  • Why does the clerk give himself the title "Mr." but does not accord a title to Louisa Addison?
  • Why did a freeborn woman need a certificate of freedom?

Free African Americans in the 1800s

We do not know if Louisa's mother, Matilda Magruder, was born free or gained her freedom before the birth of her daughter. Enslaved people were sometimes freed by their owners in deeds or wills. Also, they could be bought and freed by family members or friends. Some slaves purchased themselves to gain their own freedom. Other slaves ran away, or used borrowed or copied freedom papers to pass as free. By 1850, more than 430,000 free African Americans lived in the United States. Learn more.

The Addison family in Massachusetts

Between 1849, when Louisa Addison obtained her certificate of freedom, and 1870, when she and her family were recorded on the Federal Census in Newton, no information about Louisa has been found. The family most likely stayed in Maryland until shortly after the birth of the youngest child, Charles, in 1867. Learn more.

". . . This tattered silk bag"
Karen and Howard Haywood, 2003. The Rev. Howard Haywood is Louisa Addison's great-great-grandson.

Since the very first time I saw this tattered but beautiful silk pouch with the actual document that allowed one person to define the freedom of another, it has been a generator of conflicting emotions. First, I experience a tremendous sense of pride that my great-great-grandmother Louisa Magruder, although born free, had to have papers to prove her humanity, survived an environment of hate but left us a legacy of hope. I try to imagine the circumstances of her journey from Maryland to Massachusetts as she encountered people who had no respect for her or the papers she held. In my mind I have created an image of her that is based on my Aunt Ella (Wilson) Howard, granddaughter of Louisa Magruder, who lived with my family until her death. I could see a short, petite but very strong woman with facial features that were sharp but softened by her embracing smile. I have imagined her telling me stories of her past and encouraging me to have faith and courage in all situations.

One person owning another. The thought of that until this very day is a concept that my brain and my soul continue to reject. I often try to understand the basis and roots of hatred, where does it get its life, how is it passed on, and what value to human existence does it provide? This tattered silk pouch and this eloquently written document, confirming the freedom of my great-great-grandmother have given me some answers to my questions. Hatred and all of the destructive "isms" get their breath from ignorance and fear. It is not inherent, and it is not a basic flaw in human beings; it is taught. For one person to actually own another, one must believe first that the owner is superior and that the one being owned is less than human, and those concepts have to be taught. This chronic illness of hatred that continues to plague human existence will ultimately be its final destruction if we do not embrace the antidote of love and respect for each other. Hate has no value, and it serves no good and is the antithesis of freedom and a beloved society.

With all of this I still live in the legacy of hope that I am reminded of in this tattered silk bag that holds the document that recognized my great-great-grandmother Louisa Magruder as a human being.

— Rev. Howard Marshall Haywood

That we can view this certificate is amazing. Many freedom papers were destroyed because families were not proud of what these documents seemed to represent: the power of white slaveholders over their slaves and free African-Americans.

Yet, when I started to explore why the laws were passed requiring certificates of freedom for freeborn people, I discovered threats to the slave owners and their way of life. They were threatened by the literacy embodied in these papers. They were threatened by the powerful relationships between free and enslaved African Americans. What this one certificate tells us about the process of defining freedom, for oneself and for others, in nineteenth-century America, is invaluable.

— Sheila Sibley, Curator