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[DC] Slave Diary
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In History's Hand
"This is the History of Adam Francis Plummer"
It was a gutsy, audacious statement to make 162 years ago, when some Americans weren't supposed to have histories -- at least not written in their own hand. Yet there it is, dreamily scrawled in cursive script across a crumbling page. The man seemed to relish the telling of it, too -- fussing over each letter, elongating H's and curling F's, a hotdogger showing off.
For nearly a century no one knew for sure that a History of the Maryland slave named Adam Francis Plummer really existed. His daughter Nellie tried to tell anyone who'd listen that there had been one. But her well-to-do twin brother, Robert, wanted to keep their father's History quiet -- believing such gloomy, bitter memories of slavery best left behind.
So a sad fate befell Plummer's journal, 200 pages of composition paper with entries from his marriage in 1841 to his death in 1905, all bound in leather, as his daughter described it, "so covered as to look like thousands of books packed in rows." It was stashed away by generations of distant relatives and, until recently, socked in a manila envelope in the Cheverly home of Lucille Betty Tompkins-Davis.
In an elaborate ceremony this afternoon, Tompkins-Davis will donate the diary of Adam Francis Plummer to the Smithsonian Institution's Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, where a conservator lords over it like the Constitution, each page coveted as though spun of gold -- and with good reason: The discovery of a slave diary written in real time may be unprecedented, according to appraisers and historians.
"A firsthand account of a slave's life -- while it is going on, not reminiscences as it clouds over time, but as it goes on -- is extremely valuable," says Margaret Law Callcott, a University Park author and historian who has searched for the diary since studying the family lore about it.
Today's ceremony will also be a homecoming for members of the extended Plummer family, a group torn apart by slavery now reconnecting through a chain of writings set off by the pen of Adam Francis Plummer. Family members continue to make the connections today as more and more relatives discover the writings and make pilgrimages to the sprawling Prince George's County plantations where their ancestors once labored in bondage.
"It has connected me with distant relatives, people I had never known existed," says Tompkins-Davis. "It has opened my world to a wonderful world of relationships that I wouldn't have been privy to if not for these extraordinary people who realized that writing things down would be so important for the next generations."
Adam Plummer was not a man known for displays of emotion, but he might be smiling today at the astonishing fruits borne of his 64-year-long affirmation that he lived.
The diary of Adam Francis Plummer will be on view through next Sunday, before it is put in storage for preservation, brought out only for special occasions. The fragile document is not what leaps to mind when we think of a diary. First, what's left of it is just 48 pages, down from the 200 or so pages later described by relatives but lost somewhere over time.
In the pages remaining, Plummer doesn't dish dirt about his master in the neurotic style of the fictional Bridget Jones, nor does he offer an introspective account of the day's events like Anne Frank. Plummer's diary is more a no-frills family Bible than a confessional: He records names, dates, births, marriages, deaths, receipts, inventories of his possessions . . . lists. Expressions of emotion are rare.
Plummer clearly had more pressing things on his mind than the view of his navel. He "was born in the year of our lord 1819" a slave at a Prince George's plantation owned by the powerful, aristocratic Calvert family, which donated the land where the University of Maryland at College Park now sits. Plummer spent most of his slave life at the Riversdale plantation, which is today a house museum in Riverdale Park run by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. He grew up with -- and close to -- the heir Charles Benedict Calvert, who was about the same age. Plummer rose to the position of plantation foreman, a job he continued in after emancipation, for pay.
According to family lore, a black preacher taught Adam to read and write, which, although not illegal under Maryland law, was an offense outlawed in many Southern states and was generally severely punished by slave owners, as the extended Plummer family learned the hard way. Several in-laws were sold off to prevent rebellion. Adam wrote letters to his wife, Emily Saunders Arnold Plummer, who lived with their eight children miles from Riversdale on plantations in Bowie, Ellicott City and Washington. He also kept meticulous records of his side jobs, which the Calvert family let their trusted slave conduct. For instance, in an entry from March 13, 1859, it appears that Plummer has been cheated by a man he was doing work for:
Joseph Jones imploy Adam Plummer to inclose his garden for him for 11 dollars by the 1st of March but has he has fale in so doin pay to Dollers and imploy me to inclose chicken yard for him for 3 dollars on pay full to all debt
Plummer made a decent living for a slave, which allowed him to upgrade his family's living arrangements when their owners provided them with poor living quarters. Still the material things were cold comfort when his teenage daughter Sarah Miranda was sold to an owner in New Orleans. Or when several of his wife's siblings were sold down South. Or when two of her sisters froze to death walking in a blizzard to see their mother, who had spent time in a slave pen in Alexandria.
His material possessions were useless to him as he watched his wife and children stand on the auction block. In one unusual burst of emotion, Plummer describes the uncertainty that followed when his wife and children were sold from Washington to the Mount Hebron farm in Howard County:
Brokeup and parted in the end of the your of 1855 December 22. I have a longtime looking. After five month loocking I get a letter [from Emily] date March 2nd 1856 Deziers to see me at Mont Hebron Ellicotts Mills, 20 milds an to and form we of think that I shall never be commeable [comfortable] again but o my God.
Instead of pouring bitterness into his composition book, Plummer kept records: The $1 paid to someone named Christalee for a shirt and pants in 1853. The luxury items he lavished on his wife, the blue stone china, the milk-white teapot and matching sugar bowl, cups and saucers, the dozen goblets, six wineglasses and two feather beds. Also, the gifts to his mother-in-law: eight pounds of sugar, a coffee canister with four pounds of coffee, a tea canister filled with tea.
After emancipation, the lists included the names of friends and family who lent him money to fetch Sarah Miranda from New Orleans, the first wages that his wife and children were paid.
And perhaps the most triumphant listing: the two-year payment schedule for a $1,000 mortgage for Mount Rose, the 10-acre family homestead near Hyattsville where the entire Plummer family could finally sleep under one roof -- a home he enjoyed until his death in in 1905.
paid in full 17 JAN 1870
Chapter 2: Nellie
Nellie Arnold Plummer's fingerprints are all over her father's diary. She is the prim D.C. public schoolteacher born into slavery in 1860 who has scribbled in the margins, providing translations, commentary and spelling correction. She has crossed out "deziers" and written in "desires" and adds footnotes that explain that by "commeable" her father means "comfortable." When Adam records a $100 payment in 1885 for a right of way to his property, below she writes: "Father paid Fr. Chas. A. Wells one hundred dollars for the above mentioned right of way, which he never should have done." And later in the margins: "How truthful, honest and industrious father was! He was moral to a fault."
After her father died, Nellie continued writing in the empty pages of the diary, etching in poetry and love letters commemorating the anniversaries of her parents' births and deaths well into the 1920s. The diary at the Smithsonian now reveals 51 pages written in Nellie's hand. Today, historians cringe at Nellie's "corrections," but without her extraordinary efforts to preserve her father's legacy, his diary might have never seen the light of modern day.
In the 1920s, Nellie was an elder in St. Paul's Baptist Church, which her sister Sarah Miranda had founded in Bladensburg in 1870, not long after returning from New Orleans. She was the first woman to attend Wayland Seminary, a Washington college for freed slaves, which eventually merged into Virginia Union University, where she was a classmate of Booker T. Washington's. She had a distinguished 40-year career as a teacher and principal in Washington area schools.
When she was well into her sixties, she wrote a book, "Out of the Depths, or the Triumph of the Cross." It is a sometimes meandering account of the history of the Plummer family, beginning in the Revolutionary War, in which Adam's grandfather, Cupid Plummer, was sent to fight in place of his master. Nellie described the history of St. Paul's Church, which still exists today on Walker Mill Road in Capitol Heights. Like her father, she dropped as many names, birth dates, marriages and information about the family as possible. She quoted her father's diary heavily. "Next to his good example, we prize his 'Diary' as a legacy indeed!" she wrote. "Father wrote everything of interest that took place in River[s]dale or elsewhere."
"Out of the Depths" caused a huge rift in the family. All of her siblings had become men and women of station -- church founders, Army chaplains and nurses -- and some didn't see a need to re-invoke the horrors of slavery. Her twin brother, Robert Francis Plummer, was particularly opposed to it. He had become a noted pharmacist and did not want to remind the world of the family's humble beginnings.
"Robert didn't want her to write it because he was a little embarrassed about what took place," recalls Nicholas Saunders Plummer Davis Sr., who, at 84, recalls living at one of Mount Rose's three homes at the same time as his Aunt Nellie and Uncle Robert (today warehouses stand where the houses did). "But she did it anyhow. Nellie, she was a very shrewd and smart woman."
Unfazed, Nellie printed up as many copies as possible in 1927 by mortgaging the family's beloved homestead for $1,000. This assured the Plummer family a place in history: It became one of the best accounts historians have of black life in Prince George's County, and Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates reprinted the book in his series on African American women writers in 1997.
Before her death in 1933, Nellie did two other things to ensure that her father's writings would live on: First, she bypassed the haughty Plummers and instead gave her father's diary to Edward Arnold, a cousin on her mother's side, for safekeeping. She also mailed books to relatives around the country, some of whom she knew, others in places described in her father's diary. In some places, she sent boxes full of books with the town postmaster with instructions that they be given to anyone with the names Arnold or Plummer.
Over the decades, "Out of the Depths" became known simply as "The Book," kept and cherished by generations. And all these years later, Nellie's and Adam's words continue to echo -- sometimes when their descendants least expect it.
Four years ago, Gloria Davis McGhee was sitting in her kitchen in Columbia, entertaining her husband's childhood friends visiting from Kansas City. In a discussion of family roots, her guest Verona Hughes noted that her people were from Maryland and that one ancestor had fought in the Revolutionary War. McGhee replied that her people were from Maryland, too, and one fought in the war. Hughes said her family founded a church in Maryland. Why, so did McGhee's. Hughes added that her ancestors' church was named St. Paul's Baptist. Soon, the two women were hugging and jumping around screaming "cousin!"
When they came out to the living room, where their husbands were watching TV, it only took four words for Hughes and McGhee to explain: "She has 'The Book.' "
Reading From the Same Book
Two years ago, Lucille Betty Tompkins-Davis requested that her Washington Post subscription be suspended while she was away at a conference in Los Angeles. Instead, the 50-year-old speech pathologist was greeted upon her return by a pile of newspapers at her Cheverly doorstep.
Skimming through, she came across an article about an exhibit at the Riversdale House Museum about the legacy of Adam Francis Plummer. It noted that his descendants had been finding one another through a book -- The Book, the same one her family had stored in an attic for 70 years. Her great-great-grandfather, William Robert Arnold, was in that book.
The newspaper article said the diary the book was based on had gone missing. Tompkins-Davis had that in her attic, too. For years it had been housed in the Arnold family house on Q Street NW, then after all the Arnolds died out, in her mother's house on South Dakota Avenue NE. In 1995, she moved the diary into her Cheverly bungalow, not knowing what to do with it.
She picked up the phone and called the Rev. L Jerome Fowler, the 56-year-old family historian, who had just organized a Plummer reunion. For the next two years, Fowler and Tompkins-Davis tried to find a suitable home for the diary. Now it's at the Smithsonian, and Tompkins-Davis has been introduced to dozens of relatives she never knew existed, many of whom will be at today's ceremony.
'Turn to Page 57'
Mary Wood was in her Detroit home last fall, listening to Rep. John Conyers talk about slavery reparations, which got her to thinking about family roots. The 61-year-old retired schoolteacher decided to try to track down the family members described in The Book -- the hardcover that brought older family members to tears.
She called information to see if St. Paul's Baptist in Bladensburg was still around. No, the operator said, but there is one in Capitol Heights. Days later, a church secretary connected her with the church historian and great-great grandson of Adam Plummer, the Rev. L Jerome Fowler.
Wood explained that her great-great-grandfather Dennis Arnold was in The Book. "Turn to Page 57," she told Fowler. Together they read the section that included a letter from Dennis Arnold to his sister Emily Plummer. He had been sold down to Lavergne, Tenn., after the escape of his brother, William Robert Arnold -- whom Adam Plummer had taught to read.
In 1855, William Arnold escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad and wrote a letter back to Maryland encouraging his family to join him. The master read it and, fearing mutiny, sold Dennis and other Arnold siblings down South. In the letter, Dennis told his sister Emily that he now went by his new master's last name, Kimbro, but that he would never forget his Arnold relations. "Was father wrong in teaching Robert to read and write?" Nellie Plummer asks in The Book.
It was neither here nor there to Fowler and Wood, who talked for hours that night. The connection had been made.
The ceremony marking the first public viewing of the Adam Francis Plummer Diary will be held today from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, 1901 Fort Pl. SE. The Plummer-Arnold Collection and Diary will be on view through next Sunday. Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Free. Information: 202-287-3382.
Staff researcher Mary Lou White contributed to this report.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
Without the efforts of Nellie Arnold Plummer, above with twin Robert, to preserve her father's diary, Adam Francis Plummer's tale might have never seen the light of modern day. Stashed away by generations of relatives, the diary turned up in the Cheverly home of Lucille Betty Tompkins-Davis, left. She called on the Rev. L Jerome Fowler, below, the family historian, and together they sought a suitable home for the document. (Courtesy Of The Rev. L Jerome Fowler)
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