|Born at Three Sisters Plantation in Lanham, Maryland around 1815, Emily Saunders Plummer never knew her father, for he was sold shortly after her birth and never heard from again. She grew up with her mother and the many other children (23) her mother had when she remarried. Later, Emily would see other family members, including her own children, sold at auction. On its own, Emily’s story is special for its ordinariness – she was a devoted daughter and sister, then a happily married and loving mother, coping with the daily trials and tribulations that make up anyone’s life. But it is also special for the extraordinary awfulness that is part of that life because she was a slave who not only suffered herself, but also saw loved ones mistreated, sold away, and separated from one another.
Emily’s story is educational and inspirational, but her illiteracy means that we learn it indirectly. We are fortunate to have a diary kept by her husband, begun on their wedding day, May 31, 1841. Even more detailed is the 1927 spiritual memoir penned by Emily’s youngest daughter Nellie Arnold Plummer, Out of the Depths or the Triumph of the Cross. As Nellie relates stories about her family, Out of the Depths allows us to know Emily, her husband Adam, and their children.
A remarkably feisty, resourceful and courageous woman, Emily married Adam Francis Plummer from Riversdale Plantation. Despite limited visits, they enjoyed a close and loving relationship. Emily and Adam secretly plotted an escape in 1845, an enormous risk to take, especially with young children. Although Adam admonished Emily to tell no one of their plans, she confided in a relative who disclosed the plan to Emily’s owner. Emily, who had been the cook in the owner’s home, was made to work in the fields as punishment. Later, she and her children were put up for sale, but the birth of her daughter Julia caused the owner to sell Emily’s sister instead. After her owner’s death, Emily and three of her children were sold, just before Thanksgiving Day, 1851, to Colonel Gilbert Livingston Thompson and his wife, of Meridian Hill, in Washington, D.C. Colonel Thompson was a cruel master, especially to the children. He kicked and swore at them, and Emily “defended her little children from his fierce and brutal attacks.”
Later, the Thompsons moved to Ellicott Mills with their slaves. Emily’s defiance in defense of herself and her children brought threats of beatings and sale, but her skills as a cook and “a most reliable and trusted servant” kept the family together. The 1862 Emancipation Act in the District of Columbia inspired Emily’s oldest son, Henry, to escape. The following year, Emily, too, escaped with her children. Captured in Baltimore, she charmed the jailor’s family with her cooking, and he protected her. Eventually her husband Adam collected the family and brought them to Riversdale.
The end of the Civil War and emancipation permitted the family to reunite at last. Their daughter Miranda was retrieved from Louisiana and went on to found a church where Emily watched her son Henry preach his first sermon. After tending to Henry’s sick wife while sleeping on a pallet on the floor, Emily developed pneumonia and died on January 17, 1876.
Biography courtesy of the Maryland Commission for Women, 2018.
© Copyright Maryland State Archives, 2018