Excerpts from two Articles written for the Anne Arundel County Historical Society
By Tony J. Spencer
Captain James William Spencer
Pioneer and Founder of a Free Community Called Freetown (2004)
On December 26, 1845, James Spencer bought his first tract of land. He was acknowledged as one who knew the value of working to make a dollar while holding tight to a vision. Just one day after Christmas, fifteen years before the Civil War, Spencer was engaged in the business of buying land. For a white man, this would have been commonplace. However, when you consider the plight of African-Americans in 1845, Spencer’s purchase was not only an exceptional transaction but almost unheard of by the standards of that day and time.
Freetown was one of the largest communities of free blacks outside of Annapolis during the 19th century. The community of Freetown was a parcel of land bordered by Spencer's Wharf on the North, Pasadena on the South, Solley Road and Batts Branch on the East and the Pumphrey tract of land on the West. The property owned by Ike Turner and the Pumphrey brothers surrounded the unsettled territory. A significant part of Freetown's history bears remnants of its past even today: the bridge, which connected the slave owners' properties and the unclaimed land. All of the property owners were freeborn or manumitted from slavery. James Spencer and William Howard served in the Union Army U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War. By the late 1800s, these early landowners and their descendants had amassed nearly 1,000 acres of land.
James Spencer, my grandfather’s grandfather, and his wife Harriet built a home on his land on Marley Neck in what became Freetown. They eventually had three daughters and nine sons. The Spencer sons were Garrison, William, James A., John H., Joseph, Isaiah, Charles, Greenbury, and George. Their daughters were Mary Spencer-Williams, Harriet Spencer-Turner, and Henrietta Spencer-Kess.
James became not only the patriarch of the Spencer family but also a pioneer in the Colored community in Anne Arundel County through the purchase of his land. Though he bought his first 56-acre tract of land near Marley Creek near Glen Burnie from Mr. and Mrs. Peter J. Young and Temperance Kirby on December 26, 1845, the land was not deeded to him until March 10, 1846. The two thousand dollar purchase price would today be equal to more than two-hundred thousand dollars. The western section of this particular parcel of land, initially called Smith’s Forest, included shoreline along Marley Creek as well as Brewers Island.
This tract of land, which he farmed and later expanded to include a portion of what became Freetown, was just the first of his acquisitions. What other landowners would consider swamp land, James Spencer saw as waterfront property. As land became available, he religiously made the trek to Annapolis to purchase it. In addition to owning acreage in the Glen Burnie and Freetown areas, he bought property on the south shore of the Severn River in Waterbury, ten to twelve miles west of Annapolis, near what is now Sunset Beach. Spencer’s Wharf was located where James Spencer’s land bordered Marley Creek (Smith’s Forest). He eventually owned eighteen hundred acres in Anne Arundel County. Spencer had purchased many acres of property in Marley Neck and Freetown. According to land records and documents, his property reached nearly to Curtis Bay, Maryland.
During the Civil War, a period in our nation’s history marred by the dissension between the North and the South over race, slavery and economics, James Spencer gave his utmost to the cause of freedom by serving in the Union Army, U.S. Colored Troops. Employing the same qualities that enabled Spencer to acquire his land, conduct his business, support his family, and serve as a community leader, he served his country. He enlisted in the war fifteen years after he made his first land purchase. This afforded Spencer the challenge of working with men of various ages, levels of commitment and indeterminate experiences.
The one day on November 17, 1839, that Spencer made a significant journey to the State’s capital would prove to be one of his most significant journeys yet. James’ celebrated the opportunity to live and maintain a life of freedom and discovery. On that day, James would receive the document necessary to allow him to live his life in safety and to conduct his business as he saw fit.
Upon This Rock: Freedom Within a Slavery Driven Society (2006)
One day in November 1839, in the County of Anne Arundel, a young James Spencer made a journey to Annapolis, Maryland. His trip to Annapolis was not necessarily unusual in and of itself; it was quite likely that he had taken similar trips on various occasions. However, on this particular day, at this stage in his young life, the trip to the State’s capital would prove to be one of his most significant journeys yet.
At this time, young James’ status was one most American settlers had already come to expect and had celebrated for more than two hundred years – the opportunity to live and maintain a life of freedom and discovery. On that day, James would receive the document necessary to allow him to live his life in safety and to conduct his business as he saw fit. The process began when the Clerk of the Court certified that Spencer was, in fact, free.
The certificate identified Spencer as being “a colored male, about five-feet, four-inches tall, medium complexion, with a cut over his left eye brow. He appeared to be approximately twenty-two years old, give or take one to three years.” Based on the estimate made by the Clerk of the Court, James Spencer would have been born around 1817.
The story of James Spencer, a man whose journey was unlike that of most Black Americans, appears at first glance to be about a typical farmer of that period. His lifestyle would have been uncomplicated, unsophisticated, and most likely to remain unchanged because of the demands of the day. Throughout his lifetime, Spencer displayed to the community an unflagging work ethic: rising early, thanking God for another blessed day to provide for his family, managing those under his watch, assigning chores, doing an honest day’s work, getting the job done properly the first time, and sending or taking his crop to the South Street Market in Baltimore via sailboat or carriage.
James would have sowed a myriad of rich seeds, as well as cultivated, nurtured and picked the crops of his fields. He would have doggedly pursued and negotiated the best deal for the excellent crops he produced, worshiped his God, and paid his taxes. What was neither obvious nor anticipated by many was the soul of a man with the quiet determination to make a lasting difference in the midst of a closed society. James struggled to survive and to thrive. His skills, labors and tears defied the odds which were against a burdened and unappreciated people.
As a result of his labors, Spencer’s efforts would literally bear fruit and would also help him to accumulate enough money to purchase acre upon acre of land. Spencer’s motive in purchasing land went beyond the desire to acquire personal wealth; his acquisition of land would enable the faith community to erect places of worship, ensure that land was available to promote the education of freedmen and children in the neighborhood, and secure a better future for his immediate family and generations to come. As a farmer, Spencer needed foresight and cunning in order to survive the times; therefore, it was imperative that his days’ efforts be directed away from self-indulgence.
As a husband, father, and local businessman maneuvering his way through a slavery-driven society, James lived his life by a higher standard – obedient to a righteous God. It is no surprise that his decisions were just, deliberate, and highly ethical, seeking always to accomplish God’s will for his life and the well-being of those within the Spencer families.
Obviously freedom is essential to every human being’s existence; and therefore, this makes the account of Spencer’s fateful journey that much more fascinating and worthy of celebration. In order for James to go about his daily routine, he had to have on his person, at all times, his Certificate of Freedom. Without that one small but crucial piece of paper, James might have been subjected to misidentification and sold into slavery. His precarious position was not exceptional. It was the order of the day.
We can only speculate about the events of James Spencer’s life for the six years following the receipt of his Certificate of Freedom; however, we know he purchased land, specifically Smith’s Forest, laying the groundwork for a place later called Freetown, but also establishing the plot of the story waiting to be told to the local community and then the world.