The “water nymph” described by Gist Blair in his talk, “Annals of Silver Spring.” Circa 1920s photo. Collection of Silver Spring Historical Society. Additional photos shown below.
By Jerry A. McCoy
It was a mild 61 degrees and a little before 8 p.m., April 17, 1917, when members of the Columbia Historical Society began to stream into the Gold Room of the Shoreham Hotel at the corner of 15th and H St., N.W., in Washington, D.C. Scheduled to speak that evening was Maj. Gist Blair, whose talk was titled “Silver Spring.” Blair was the grandson of Silver Spring’s founder, Francis Preston Blair, Sr., advisor to U.S. presidents from Andrew Jackson to Ulysses S. Grant, and son of Montgomery Blair, United States Postmaster General during the first term of President Abraham Lincoln.
In his talk Blair described the spring, after which Silver Spring took its name, as being his earliest memory of visiting his grandfather’s Maryland home. He described it to the gathered members of the CHS: “The column of shining silver, sand and mica, ever rising, ever falling, ever sparkling in the water and the sunlight, was presided over by a marble statue of a beautiful water nymph placed there by my grandfather, and it was endless joy to me, a little country boy, to sit and watch and dream upon this exquisite combinations of white marble and living water.”
The water nymph and flowing spring water are long gone, but one can still visit the marble surround marking the grotto that housed the spring at Acorn Urban Park, 8060 Newell St. (at East-West Highway) in Silver Spring. Blair went on to describe the property; “The Silver Spring grounds and gardens were extensive and beautiful. The rose garden and vegetable garden…the grapery, peach orchard and some great fig bushes…were in close proximity and all the land surrounding them were kept under a high state of cultivation…”
But who kept all of Blair’s property “under a high state of cultivation?” The answer was made quite evident in Blair’s talk, which was published the following year as “Annals of Silver Spring” in Vol. 21 of “Records of the Columbia Historical Society” (available on line at https://tinyurl.com/y7qc343x).
Blair informed his audience that the entrance to “Silver Spring” was “…always called by the negroes the ‘Big Gate’…” and went on to describe how not far from the spring was located “…the dairy and ‘quarters.’ There the slaves lived and adjoining them were the stables. A roadway ran due west from the spring at the beginning of which was a large summerhouse called the Acorn, named on account of its shape.”
If this acorn-shaped summerhouse or gazebo sounds familiar it is because, unlike the “quarters,” it has survived the passage of over 160 years. Today the gazebo is the centerpiece of Acorn Urban Park, standing as a rare example of 19th century landscape garden architecture. It was designed circa 1851 by Benjamin C. King, a white resident of Takoma, D.C. King spent 30 years as a contractor and builder, 20 of which were as assistant building inspector of the District of Columbia.
Blair further stated in his talk, “My grandfather owned numbers of slaves, among whom ‘Uncle Henry,’ the coachman, and ‘Aunt Nanny,’ the cook still figure in my memory, but my father would never own a slave.” Gist’s father, Montgomery, had served as counsel for the slave Dred Scott in the landmark 1857 Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sandford.
I think of Blair’s ownership of slaves every time I visit or give tours of Acorn Urban Park, long described as “the birthplace of Silver Spring.” It was there that Frances Preston Blair, Sr. caught up with his runaway horse Selim after having been thrown during a countryside ride circa 1840. During his flight, Selim had been distracted by the waters of a mica-flecked spring and stopped to partake. Blair reputedly said that the water “sparkled like silver” when struck by the sun, and decided to purchase the property to build his home.
Or at least that is how the story has long been told. What is factual is that the origin story of today’s incredibly diverse, 21st century Silver Spring is one of its founder, who helped launch the antislavery Republican Party on one hand, but who owned human beings on the other.
On July 26, 1850, 22 days after the United States celebrated its 74th anniversary of independence, Blair was visited by William H. Farquhar, principal of the Fair Hill Boarding School for Girls, a Quaker school located in Sandy Springs. Farquhar had taken a side job for the federal government in 1850 to enumerate the number of slaves owned by Montgomery County residents.
Farquhar recorded for the 1850 U.S. Federal Census –Slave Schedules that Blair owned 20 slaves at his home, “Silver Spring.” They were recorded as follows (“age, sex, colour”):
58, female, mulatto
40, male, black
35, male, black
30, female, black
30, female, mulatto
30, female, black
24, female, black
20, female, mulatto
15, male, black
14, male, black
13, male, black
12, female, black
6, male, black
5, female, black
4, female, black
3, male, black
2, female, black
1, female, black
4 months, male, black
1 month, male, black
One interpretation of these statistics is that the dozen children and teenagers, ages 15 and under, accompanied their mothers when Blair purchased or acquired them but that all had been separated from their fathers. A chilling thought.
A decade later on July 4, 1860, America’s 84th anniversary of independence, Blair was visited by William M. Canby who was conducting the federal government’s census of enslaved individuals in Montgomery County’s 5th District. Blair was documented as owning 15 slaves. They were recorded in the U.S. Federal Census – Slave Schedules as follows (“age, sex, color”):
60, male, black
45, male, black
45, female, black
40, female, mulatto (noted as “Fugitives from the State”)
40, female, black
20, female, black
20, male, black
20, female, mulatto (“Fugitives from the State”)
17, male, black
14, male, black
6, female, mulatto (“Fugitives from the State”)
4, male, mulatto (“Fugitives from the State”)
4, female, black
2, female, mulatto (“Fugitives from the State”)
3 months, female, mulatto (“Fugitives from the State”)
Six of Blair’s 15 slaves were noted as “Fugitives of the State,” otherwise known as slaves who had fled during the year that the census was taken and had not been returned, captured, or held for return. It appears that the 20- and 40-year-old mulatto women ran away with a total of four mulatto children ages six and under.
These two women obviously decided to put into action what Frederick Douglass wrote in the 1847 edition of his autobiography “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave:”
“Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught, or get clear, I’ll try it. I had as well die with ague as the fever. I have only one life to lose. I had as well be killed running as die standing.” (The full text of Douglass’ autobiography may be read at https://tinyurl.com/y7ans8zp.)
The 1860 slave census also added an additional category that the 1850 slave census did not include, that of “No. of Slave houses.” Blair’s property was noted as having four slave houses, or ”quarters,” as his grandson Gist would describe them 57 years later.
It is interesting to note that in the separate 1850 U.S. Federal Census of “Free Inhabitants,” Francis P. Blair’s occupation is listed as “Farmer” with the “Value of Real Estate owned” being $30,000 (equal to about $898,000 today). Included in this census of Blair’s household and his five family members was a 23-year-old black laborer who was noted as living with them and not being able to read and write. His name was Samuel Lytton. Three years after this census was conducted, Lytton would purchase property that became Lyttonsville, one of the earliest predominantly black communities in Montgomery County.
Blair’s personal finances improved greatly ten years later when Canby, on the same July 4, 1860 that he was enumerating Blair’s slaves, documented Blair and his seven family members. Blair’s wealth from farming had increased to $150,000, with $50,000 being noted as the value of his real estate and $100,000 the value of his personal estate ($150,000 is equal to about $4.6 million today).
By comparison, Blair’s nearest neighbors, farmers Samuel Crawford and William Reed, were respectively worth a total of $385 and $7,000. Crawford owned no slaves and Reed owned one.
The identities of Blair’s slaves will never be known, with the intriguing exception of “Uncle Henry” the coachman and “Aunt Nanny” the cook. The 1870 U.S. Federal Census lists the following individuals as living in a separate household from the Blairs but next door to them (“age, sex, color, profession”):
Henry Lemon, 60, male, black, coachman
Nannie Jones, 60, female, mulatto, domestic servant
Caroline Jones, 16, female, mulatto, domestic servant
Henry Jones, 13 male, mulatto
Gerard Buchanan, 40, male, black, farm laborer
Adeline Buchanan, 37, female, mulatto, domestic servant
Napoleon Huddleton, 30, male, black, gardener
The 1880 U.S. Federal Census lists Henry Lemon, black coachman, as living on Boundary Street in northeast Washington, D.C. (today’s Florida Avenue). His birthplace is listed as Washington, D.C. with birth year being “About 1816,” which made him 64 years old. This disparity in age with the Henry Lemon who was 60 years old in 1870 and worked as a coachman for the Blairs stands out, but as recorded ages in the censuses are somewhat unreliable for blacks as well as whites (especially those enumerated in the 19th century), I am confident that this is the same person.
A search of the Evening Star newspaper for “Henry Lemon” resulted in a notice in the September 9, 1885 Star that a Henry Lemon had applied for a position of janitor at the Blair Building. The Blair Building is most likely Blair House at 1651 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., and today known as The President’s Guest House. This home was purchased by Francis Preston Blair, Sr., in 1836 and remained in the Blair family until 1942 when sold to the federal government.
Henry, legally emancipated in 1864 when slavery was abolished in Maryland, found himself over 20 years later still associated with the Blair family. He would have been about 70 years old.
The Joneses and Buchanans could not be located in the 1880 Census but the uniquely named Napoleon Huddleton was easily found. He was documented as being a 36-year-old black laborer born “about” 1844 in Virginia and living alone at 617 2nd St., S.W., in Washington, D.C. Neither Lemon, the Joneses, Huddleton, or the Buchanans appear in the 1900 U.S. Federal Census (the 1890 Census was destroyed in a fire).
Walking around Acorn Urban Park today, I can’t help but wonder what happened to all of these individuals, both unknown and known, that Blair enslaved. Could some of them possibly have been buried on his property and whose gravesites remain unknown to this day, 150 years later?
These are questions whose answers need to be found.
McCoy is president of the Silver Spring Historical Society