William Green, Rediscovered

William Green, Rediscovered

By Cliff McCarthy

(A version of this story appears on the website “Freedom Stories of the Pioneer Valley” (https://freedomstoriespv.wordpress.com) and is used with permission.)

Of the formerly enslaved people who settled in Springfield, we probably know the most about William Green. He published his story in 1853 under the title, A Narrative of Events in the Life of William Green, Formerly a Slave, Written by Himself.[1] In this 24-page booklet, Green told of his life in slavery and of his escape to freedom. However, a few years after its publication, he and his family seemingly disappeared from the written record.  Recent research has uncovered new information that continues William Green’s life story.

(Courtesy Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History)

Born at Oxford Neck, in Talbot County on Maryland’s eastern shore, Green describes his mother, Matilda Jackson, as anenslaved woman who was granted her freedom when their mistress died just three months after William’s birth. William was supposed to gain his freedom at age 25, but in the various transactions that subsequently occurred, that point got lost. He felt as though he had been cheated of his freedom.

In his narrative, he describes his masters, both good and bad. Sold to Mr. Edward Hamilton, Green remained with him until he was given as a wedding present to Hamilton’s daughter, Henrietta Hamilton Jenkings, and her new husband, Dr. Solomon Jenkings. Green clashed with Dr. Jenkings, with whom he had a violent confrontation, but was protected somewhat by Henrietta. However, after Henrietta’s early death, Green saw the writing on the wall and was determined “not to let any one man whip me.”  He recruits Joseph, “a young friend … with whom I had often talked about this freedom” and together they made their escape.

While hiding from searchers throughout their perilous journey, Green and his friend traveled north with the assistance of sympathetic strangers — enslaved African Americans who helped them cross rivers, Quakers who directed them to the homes of other Friends, and sympathetic whites who warned them away from dangerous areas. Green and Joseph eventually reached Philadelphia, where they remained one night before traveling by boat to New York.

Once in New York, they secured a place to stay and attempted to find work. But Green and his friend ran out of money after two weeks and decided to “throw ourselves upon the mercy of our landlady, and tell her our condition.” Their landlady was sympathetic and helped them avoid recapture when constables came looking for them at the boarding house.  She also helped them make contact with other “friends of the slave” — they were aided by David Ruggles, among others.[2] They then were brought up to Hartford and Springfield, where they spent a few days with Rev. Samuel Osgood, pastor of the First Church of Christ, before Green found a job and living quarters and settled into the Springfield community. He married Parthenia Peters, and they had four children by the time his story was published in 1853. He wrote that his friend Joseph had died shortly after reaching Springfield. Green’s narrative concludes at this point.

In 2012, David Armenti, working at the Maryland State Archives, researched Green’s narrative. He found that while some of the details are slightly off — such as his use of the names “Molly Goldsbury” instead of the more accurate “Polly Goldsborough” and “Hamilton” and “Jenkings” instead of “Hambleton” and “Jenkins” — the broad narrative holds together.  However, the details of the estate transactions of his early owners — the wills and slave distributions — were significantly more complicated than Green portrayed in his story. Armenti includes this bit of understatement: “Very little is known about the former Maryland slave in the years following the pamphlet’s publication.”[3]

In Springfield, the record shows that William Green and Parthenia Peters were married at the First Church in Springfield (probably by Rev. Osgood) on October 20, 1841.[4] Their child, Mary E., was born in Springfield on 18 October 1844 and another child, Ann Maria, was born to them in 1847.[5] That same year, Green first appears in the Springfield city directory as a “jobber” and in 1848, he is listed with J. B. Adams as “Green and Adams, Whitewashers.”[6] The 1850 U.S. Census shows William and “Parthinia” Green in Springfield with three children: Mary, Anna, and Martha.[7] William was working as a whitewasher and Parthinia was listed as born in Connecticut. He was a trustee of the Zion Methodist Church.

Artist’s depiction of the first meeting of the League of Gileadites, 1851

William Green was one of the courageous black men who affixed his name to the document that codified the actions of the League of Gileadites.  Created at the instigation of John Brown in response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Gileadites were a group of African American men and women in Springfield who were determined to protect fugitives by any means, including the use of violence. The initial meeting of the group was in January of 1851.[8]

Another child, Littleton [or Liddleton], was born in Springfield in 1853 and died a year later, also in Springfield.[9]

Next, the 1855 Massachusetts State Census shows the family in Worcester: William, working as a whitewasher; Parthenia, 37 years old; with children Mary E., Anna M., Martha C., and George T.[10] The Worcester vital records show a daughter Georgiana born in that city in 1854 and dying there the following year. Son George T. also died that year in Worcester.[11]

Then nothing.

For decades, researchers have wondered what happened to William Green and his family that they suddenly disappear from the records.  In fear of the Fugitive Slave Law, did they go into hiding? Did they move to Canada? or Europe? Were they re-captured and taken south — even though Parthenia and her children were not fugitives from slavery? No one knew.

However, recent research has revealed some new details about this family. The 1860 U.S. Census shows the family in Utica, New York under a different surname–- Adams.[12]

Remember Green’s business partner in Springfield was J. B. Adams.  Did he take that name to honor his friend? The answer is not known at this time, but the census lists the family, this way:

“William Adams, 45, male, black, whitewasher, born in Maryland
Parthenia    ”      , 40, female, black, born in Connecticut
Mary             ”     , 15, female, black, born in Massachusetts
Anne             ”     , 13, female, black, born in Massachusetts
Martha         ”     , 11, female, black, born in Massachusetts
Bennett        ”     , 2, male, black, born in Massachusetts”

In 1870, the family is listed in Brooklyn, NY, with 56 year-old William and 50 year-old Parthenia with their daughter, Martha, 21.  William is working as a whitewasher and has personal property worth $375.  Also living with them is daughter Ann and her new husband Assu Foster, who was born in China. The couple had a one year-old son, Arthur, born in New York.[13]

Five years later, William, Parthenia, and Martha Adams are recorded in Brooklyn. William was working as a “plasterer.”[14]

In the 1880 U.S. Census, the three are living at 589 Baltic Street in Brooklyn with William working at “cleaning & repairing furniture.”[15]

An African American newspaper, the New York Freeman, carried the following item in March 1885: “Mr. William Adams is seen on the street again after an illness of several months.”[16] William Adams is a common name, but the fact that this appeared under the “Springfield Notes” column, with references to other people from western Massachusetts, leads one to believe this might be a reference to the subject of this piece.

Parthenia Adams died in Brooklyn on 5 November 1882. William died as “William Adams” in Brooklyn, NY on 5 December 1895. They rest in Brooklyn’s Evergreen Cemetery.[17]

More research is needed on the fate of their children.  If they had descendants, was the story of William Green’s escape to freedom in Springfield preserved in family lore?

 Cliff McCarthy, Archivist at the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History and at the Stone House Museum in Belchertown, is also Vice-President of the Pioneer Valley History Network.

[1]A Narrative of Events in the Life of William Green, Formerly a Slave, Written by Himself, L. M. Guernsey, Book, Job and Card Printer, Springfield, Mass., 1853.

[2] Foner, Eric, Gateway to Freedom, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2015, pgs. 72-73; Also Hodges, Graham Russell Gao, David Ruggles, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2010, pgs. 124 & 132.

[3]Armenti, David, “William Green (b.1819 – d.?)”, Maryland State Archives (Biographical Series), 2012, MSA SC 5496-8781, available online at http://msa.maryland.gov.

[4]Stott, Clifford L., Vital Records of Springfield, Massachusetts to 1850, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, 2003, p. 900.

[5]Stott, Clifford L., Vital Records of Springfield, Massachusetts to 1850, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, 2003, p. 900.

[6]Springfield Almanac, Directory, and Business Advertiser, Valentine W. Skiff, Springfield, 1847 & 1848.

[7]1850 U.S. Census for William Green, (Springfield, Hampden Co., MA).

[8]Sanborn, Franklin B., Life and Letters of John Brown, The, Roberts Brothers, Boston, 1885.

[9]Vital Records for Springfield, Mass., available online at AmericanAncestors.org.

[10]1855 Massachusetts State Census for William Green, (Ward #2, Worcester, Worcester Co., MA).

[11]Vital Records for Worcester, Mass., available online at AmericanAncestors.org.

[12]1860 U.S. Census for William Adams, (Ward #4, Utica, Oneida Co., NY).

[13]1870 U.S. Census for William Adams, (Ward #11, Brooklyn, Kings Co., NY).

[14]1875 New York State Census for William Adams, (3rd Election Dist., 10th Ward, Brooklyn, Kings Co., NY).

[15]1880 U.S. Census for William Adams, (Dist. #78, Brooklyn, Kings Co., NY).

[16] “Springfield Notes,” New York Freeman, The, March 1885.

[17]“New York, New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” database, FamilySearch.org.

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