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  • Emmanuel Mehr

Slavery and Apprenticeship in the Making of the Flag That Inspired the National Anthem

BHW 9: April 1, 2023


At 22 Albemarle Street in Baltimore City, a household of complex freedom statuses created the flag which inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became the Star-Spangled Banner. [1] Mary Pickersgill conventionally receives most credit for this War of 1812 flag’s production. [2] She was an enslaver and widow who had taken over her mother Rebecca Young’s flag-making business at 22 Albemarle. In this house the Star-Spangled Banner flag was designed, sewn, and endowed with the magnificence that would inspire Key’s poem. All residents of the house greatly contributed to the project, despite minimal extant details about who physically stitched the flag. This included an apprenticed Black youth named Grace Wisher, an enslaved Black female whose name is unknown, Pickersgill’s daughter Caroline, an unnamed white male boarder, and three females who appear to be extended family members. [3] Historian Thavolia Glymph’s analysis of plantation households in the South helps to clarify this household labor arrangement of various freedom states. Glymph writes, “It is not home as an idea but flesh-and-blood practices that make it free or not, and public or private, or not.” [4] The Young-Pickersgill household fits this description well, despite being in a border state and not on a plantation. By bringing in outside labor, both enslaved and free, to work on the flag, Pickersgill blurred distinctions between private and public. Even if the enslaved resident labored around the house and not directly on the flag, their domestic labor still contributed to the flag’s production by freeing up time for other house members to work on it. This was a house of both freedom and unfreedom, where the inspiration for the refrain “land of the free” was created. [5] An examination of this story illuminates how the creation of the Star-Spangled Banner flag embodied tensions between slavery and freedom in Baltimore City and the United States in the early-nineteenth century.

The 1810 U.S. census provides the clearest look at the Young-Pickersgill household labor force around the time of the War of 1812. It records the house as home to nine individuals, including eight residents recorded as female and one recorded as male. The sole male is a boarder whose name is unknown. The eldest female is Rebecca Young, the second eldest is her daughter Mary Pickersgill. Her daughter Caroline is the third eldest. Three unidentified free white female youth also lived in the house, likely extended family. Two other females are recorded, one free but apprenticed and one enslaved. Grace Wisher, a free Black female, was apprenticed by her mother to Mary Pickersgill for a six-year term. This apprenticeship is not to be confused with indentured servitude. Wisher was governed by a legally binding apprenticeship agreement. Of the enslaved female no details are known. [6] Historian Seth Rockman argues that “Without disputing Pickersgill’s own diligence and self-denial, her economic viability makes sense only in light of her ability to access other people’s labor.” [7] Indeed, Pickersgill’s success as a female head of household in patriarchal antebellum Baltimore is significant. It is also significant that her success depended on taking advantage of the racialized economic benefits of exploitative labor. That some of the flag-related labor she directed came from an apprenticed Black youth and an enslaved youth speaks to the complex landscape of slavery and freedom in antebellum Baltimore.

Grace Wisher’s role in the flag’s production provides insights into Maryland’s system of gradual emancipation and apprenticeship, carried out through its Orphans’ Courts. It is helpful to define gradual emancipation for the purposes of this investigation. Historian Crystal Lynn Webster provides a strong definition, writing, “Gradual emancipation, which began in the late eighteenth century and extended across the antebellum North, granted a precarious form of freedom—freedom once African American children grew up. The process failed to protect Black children and denied parental authority while extending enslavers’ and indenturers’ exploitation of Black children’s labor.” [8] Apprenticeship fit into the landscape of gradual emancipation in that Orphans’ Courts often forced apprenticeships upon the children of Black Marylanders deemed incapable of supporting their children. Prior to 1793, most apprentices in Maryland were white. That year, the Maryland legislature granted courts the authority to forcibly apprentice Black children, sparking a surge in Black apprenticeships. [9] Historian Ira Berlin describes these Black apprenticeships as “virtual slavery” and “an unadorned system of labor extortion.” Indeed, similarities to slavery persisted in the ensuing legal and everyday treatment of these apprentices. In the 1810s, Maryland’s legislature and courts removed mandated Black apprenticeship benefits such as required literacy training, rendering the arrangements even closer to slavery. [10]

In contrast to the often non-consensual labor compelled through court-mandated apprenticeships, in some cases Black parents willingly arranged apprenticeships in hopes of providing their child with useful training and knowledge. [11] It appears this was the case with Grace Wisher, as her Orphans’ Court apprenticeship contract states she was apprenticed “with the consent and approbation of her mother Jenny Wisher.” [12] This raises the question of to what extent apprenticeship was still akin to slavery if entered into with parental consent. Another important and related question is if an apprenticeship should be considered part of gradual emancipation if the apprenticed person was never enslaved. Continuing with Webster’s definition, it appears the conceptual framework is applicable collectively across generations. [13] In other words, because Grace Wisher was part of the Black freedom struggle, likely coming from enslaved descendants, her apprenticeship was part of the process of gradual emancipation. This process did not operate on individuals, but rather collectively on Black people facing the ongoing legacies of slavery. Regarding the possibility of parental consent impacting involvement in this freedom struggle, such consent must be viewed with great skepticism. Manipulative judges and biased legislation put parents of potential apprentices in difficult positions. Courts frequently employed prejudiced assumptions based on gender and race to deem parents unfit to raise their own children. [14]

Mandated ages for apprenticeships aligned with popular thinking that these labor contracts would provide adulthood readiness training. In Maryland the standard age of completion was sixteen for females, twenty-one for males. [15] While Wisher’s apprenticeship contract does not specify her age, that it stipulates a six-year term suggests she was around ten years old. A child much younger than ten would likely not be able to provide the training-based labor expected of these apprentices. Age became an important contributing factor to eligibility for emancipation. [16] Historian Martha Jones frames cases of Black Baltimoreans asserting authority over their own children’s futures through the Orphans’ Courts, as Wisher’s mother appears to have done, as strong examples of Black legal autonomy. Through the Orphans’ Court judge as an agent of the state, Black parents could negotiate their children’s futures. However, as the Wisher case shows, such assertions of autonomy still required a period of apprenticed labor. [17] These Black parental efforts could also backfire, as some judges deemed the very appearance of the parents in court a sign of acquiescence. [18] While cases of Black parents positively influencing the outcomes of Orphans’ Court cases did happen, they were quite rare. [19]

When Mary Pickersgill’s husband John died in 1805, she became a propertied widow and the head of her household. [20] For working-class households like hers in early-nineteenth century Baltimore, this was not an uncommon predicament. By 1820, women headed just under a fifth of the households in Baltimore’s primary working-class neighborhoods of Fells Point and Old Town. Widows like Pickersgill made up the largest share of this group. [21] Historian Kirsten E. Wood writes that “The rhetoric of male mastery and female submission left little ideological room for widows. . . . In reality, however, death often intervened.” [22] The perils of industrial working-class life in Baltimore increased the chances of such an intervention. While no records indicate Pickersgill remarrying, widow remarriage provided an additional opportunity for female empowerment in this period. It was not uncommon for widows to negotiate prenuptial agreements for their second or third marriages to ensure property inherited from their deceased husbands would remain theirs. [23] Wood’s emphasis on rhetoric is also striking, providing reminders of how to frame the Pickersgill case. Since enslavement and mastery historically carry masculinized rhetoric, analyses of this case risk underemphasizing Pickersgill’s role as an enslaver. She enslaved human beings and likely treated them inhumanely just like her male counterparts, occupying multiple positionalities in a racially and patriarchally ordered society. [24]

Placing the Pickersgill household’s War of 1812 flag production in historical context sheds light on the nature and development of slavery in early-nineteenth century Baltimore. Most Baltimore slaveholders of this period enslaved one to four people. [25] Both slavery and apprenticeship later saw a marked downturn in the city starting in the 1820s. [26] Like in other major U.S. cities of the era, most enslavement happened in domestic settings as was the case at 22 Albemarle. [27] Mary Pickersgill is recorded as holding an enslaved person as late as 1850, seven years before her death. [28] To enslave in a domestic setting evoked less public attention than to enslave in the public sector or on a large scale. The relative isolation of domestic enslavement generally meant very little representation in public records or public life. [29] Relatedly, while the War of 1812 led to significant numbers of enslaved people deserting their enslavers to join the British ranks, this was less likely to happen with small-scale domestic enslavement. [30] With minimized exposure to the outside world, domestic enslaved people had lesser exposure to the potentialities and possibilities of revolution and freedom. Domestic laboring enslaved people had scarce opportunities to glimpse freedom in what Key deemed the “land of the free & the home of the brave.” [31]

Francis Scott Key’s personal history must not be separated from the ways his poem contradicted realities of slavery and freedom in the mid-Atlantic. While he spent some early days of his legal career in Washington, D.C. providing legal representation for the freedom-seeking side in freedom suits, he would spend much of his later career defending the rights of slaveholders. [32] He was also an enslaver himself and came from a family of enslavers. As historian William G. Thomas III writes, “Key personally purchased and inherited enslaved people. Although he enslaved just five people in these years [the first decade of the nineteenth century], it would be a mistake to think this his relationship to slavery was minimal.” [33] This reflects the common size of enslavement in Maryland and surrounding areas during this era, with Key and Pickersgill having in common the enslavement of five or less people. [34] Key was in Baltimore to provide legal assistance to a physician kidnapped by the British when he witnessed Pickersgill’s flag flying over Fort McHenry. [35] A few years after this, he became a founding member of the American Colonization Society, which sought to remove free Black people from the United States. [36] He was not only pro-slavery, but also held clear anti-Black views. In March 1836 he asked the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, “The ‘great moral and political evil’ of which I speak, is supposed to be slavery—but is it not plainly the whole coloured [sic] race? But if I did say this of slavery, as I am quite willing to say it, here and on all fit occasions, do I not also in the same breath speak of emancipation as a far greater evil?” [37] Clearly Black Americans were not included in Key’s poetic vision of American freedom. [38]

Star-Spangled Banner narratives focusing on Pickersgill and Key spotlight two enslavers, overlooking the enslaved and apprenticed labor behind the creation of the flag itself. The story of Grace Wisher, free and Black but apprenticed, provides insights into the system of gradual emancipation carried out through Maryland’s Orphans’ Courts in the early-nineteenth century. The unnamed enslaved female recorded in the 1810 census as living at the Pickersgill House shows that enslaved labor contributed to the creation of the Fort McHenry flag itself, at least indirectly. [39] Pickersgill’s continued slaveholding until at least 1850 shows she spent her life advancing and benefiting from the institution of slavery. [40] She did this despite the gradual decline of slavery in Baltimore City in the first half of the nineteenth century. [41] She also became a propertied widow upon the death of her husband John in 1805, becoming the head of her household. This meant she inherited enslaved property, and the duties that came along with managing the labor of such property. Her effective combined usage of enslaved and apprenticed labor together with familial labor demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the types of labor available in Baltimore. It appears she made her mother’s flag business quite successful after taking it over, as evidenced by her receiving the Fort McHenry flag contract. Yet, enslavement and capitalization upon unjust systems of gradual emancipation are just as important to this story as Pickersgill’s flag business. This is much more than a story of patriotism and entrepreneurship. It reflects the exploitative labor practices foundational to the history of the United States. [42]


Cover Image: Preservation Maryland, “The Star-Spangled Banner Flag House,” photograph (Baltimore, December 8, 2005), Creative Commons,

[1] Maryland Historical Trust, “Star Spangled Banner Flag House, Phase II and Phase III Archeological Database and Inventory,” site number: 18BC140, Maryland Historical Society,

[2] For example, see “Mary Pickersgill,” National Parks Service (U.S. Department of the Interior, October 10, 2019),; Lonn Taylor, The Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag that Inspired the National Anthem (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 2000), 39-41

[3] I am very thankful for the opportunity to speak with Creative Museum Services Consultant Dean Krimmel ( about his government record research findings in this case. I am also thankful to Star-Spangled Banner Flag House Executive Director Amanda Shores Davis ( for approving Mr. Krimmel sharing his research conducted for the site. My interpretations of records regarding the identities and statuses of the Young-Pickersgill household are greatly strengthened and clarified by my conversations with Mr. Krimmel, and I give him due credit as such. To consult the primary source records involved, please see “1810 United States Federal Census,” database with images,, s.v. “Reb Young,” Baltimore Ward 7 (Baltimore, MD), accessed March 27, 2023,; “Grace Wisher’s Indenture,” Orphans’ Court of Baltimore County, Jan. 6, 1810, quoted in Sally Johnston and Pat Pilling, Mary Young Pickersgill: Flag Maker of the Star-Spangled Banner (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2014), 28-31,

[4] Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 2, Kindle edition.

[5] Francis Scott Key, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” poem, September 15, 1814, Maryland Center for History and Culture,

[6] “1810 United States Federal Census,” Ancestry, s.v. “Reb Young”; “Grace Wisher’s Indenture,” Orphans’ Court of Baltimore County.

[7] Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 261,

[8] Crystal Lynn Webster, Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood: African American Children in the Antebellum North (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2021), 7, Kindle edition.

[9] Hilary J. Moss, Schooling Citizens: The Struggle for African American Education in Antebellum America (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), 74,

[10] Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (New York: The New Press, 1974), 226,

[11] Adam Malka, The Men of Mobtown: Policing Baltimore in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 145-146, Kindle edition.

[12] “Grace Wisher’s Indenture,” Orphans’ Court of Baltimore County.

[13] Webster, Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood, 7.

[14] Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 188.

[15] Malka, The Men of Mobtown, 145.

[16] Webster, Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood, 70.

[17] Martha Jones, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 119-120.

[18] Barbara Jeanne Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland during the Nineteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 139,

[19] Malka, The Men of Mobtown, 206.

[20] “John Pickersgill, 1770-1805,” GENi record,

[21] Malka, The Men of Mobtown, 95.

[22] Kirsten E. Wood, Slaveholding Widows from the American Revolution through the Civil War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 3,

[23] Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property, 33-34.

[24] Wood, Slaveholding Widows, 11.

[25] Whitman, The Price of Freedom, 162.

[26] Whitman, The Price of Freedom, 30.

[27] Fields, Slavery and Freedom, 47.

[28] “1850 United States Federal Census – Slave Schedules,” database with images,, s.v. “Mary Pickersgill,” Baltimore Ward 4 (Baltimore, MD), accessed March 28, 2023,

[29] Wendy Warren, New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America (New York: Liveright, 2016), 131.

[30] Frank A. Cassell, “Slaves of the Chesapeake Bay Area and the War of 1812,” The Journal of Negro History 57, no. 2 (April 1972): 1,

[31] Key, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” September 15, 1814.

[32] William G. Thomas III, A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020), 146, 215, Kindle edition.

[33] Thomas, A Question of Freedom, 146.

[34] Whitman, The Price of Freedom, 162; “1850 United States Federal Census – Slave Schedules,” Ancestry, s.v. “Mary Pickersgill.”

[35] Thomas, A Question of Freedom, 187-188.

[36] Thomas, A Question of Freedom, 200.

[37] Francis Scott Key, A part of a speech pronounced by Francis S. Key, Esq. on the trial of Reuben Crandall, M.D. (Washington, DC: [s.n.], 1836), 9,

[38] Key, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” September 15, 1814.

[39] “1810 United States Federal Census,” Ancestry, s.v. “Reb Young.”

[40] “1850 United States Federal Census – Slave Schedules,” Ancestry, s.v. “Mary Pickersgill.”

[41] Whitman, The Price of Freedom, 9.

[42] For an exemplary framing of the central role of slavery and Black people in the history of the United States, see Nikole Hannah-Jones, “Preface: Origins,” in Nikole Hannah-Jones, Caitlin Roper, Ilena Silverman, and Jake Silverstein, eds., The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story (New York: One World, 2021), xvii-xxxiii.


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