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Stories / Margaret Jane Blake

Margaret Jane Blake

Margaret Jane Blake, subject of a published narrative by a white author, was born enslaved in in Baltimore, Maryland, to Perry Blake, a free African American, and his enslaved wife Charlotte, who worked in the household of a prominent merchant, Jesse Levering. The couple had  several other children. In 1897 Jesse's daughter Sarah R. Levering published a booklet about Margaret Jane Blake's life through the Press of Innes & Son in Philadelphia. As of 2011, other sources  concerning Blake's life were unknown. Thus we should read this account with care, recognizing that it  provides only one perspective on Blake's life, and that it comes from a member of the family who once owned her. It nonetheless offers several insights on the life of an urban African American woman in slavery and freedom. Levering designated the proceeds from the booklet's sale to a Presbyterian affiliated “manual labor school for the benefit of the Afro-American citizens, as they prefer being called” (Levering, pp. v–vi).

Perry Blake served as a U.S. Navy marine during the War of 1812. When the British attacked Baltimore,  the men in the Levering household took up arms. Charlotte Blake supplied them with food. For her  “unremitting and cheerful service during this anxious time” (Levering, pp. 7–8), Jesse Levering manumitted her. Sarah Levering states that Charlotte Blake tried unsuccessfully to return to slavery,  then arranged for her children to remain in bonds.

Margaret Jane Blake cleaned the house and tended Sarah R. Levering, born in 1825. It is unclear  whether Blake ever learned to read. Levering does note that Blake resisted male attentions and offers  of marriage because she did not want to create new slaves. Blake never wed or had biological children.  At the same time, Levering presents her as critical of abolitionists.

Blake injured herself in a fall as a young woman. She suffered severe pain and periods of inactivity the  rest of her life. After Jesse's death in 1832, the Leverings' wealth diminished. They hired Blake out to  work in other households. When the Leverings moved outside Baltimore, “Blake … was allowed to  remain there. From that time she went and came as suited her, and never was with us but as an invalid  to be nursed or as a visitor to be entertained.” The Leverings agreed “to allow Blake to buy herself …  [B]efore Blake was old, she had her free papers” (Levering, p. 18).

She then worked as a household servant for the Baltimore railroad magnate Walter Booth Brooks,  caring for his children, including his daughter Eleanor. On 23 October 1873, at Baltimore's Brown  Memorial Presbyterian Church, Eleanor Brooks married William Grigsby McCormick. The groom came  from Chicago's wealthy McCormick family, who started the company eventually called International  Harvester. Levering writes: “Mammy Blake [brought] up the rear of the bridal procession … the  crowning indulgence of the life of the affectionate servant” (Levering, p. 20). Blake then moved to  Chicago with the couple and cared for their children.

At about age sixty-nine, while on a visit back to her hometown, Margaret Jane Blake died in the  Baltimore Infirmary from erysipelas, a virulent skin infection. She was buried in Laurel Cemetery under a headstone that Eleanor Brooks McCormick had inscribed “Faithful unto Death.” Sarah  Levering comments that “fidelity was the keynote of [Blake's] life… [S]he served her masters well …  [and] held her faith … in childlike simplicity” (Levering, p. 21).

Because the biography is replete with such statements, late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century  scholars categorize Levering's biography among the many “unreliable” slave narratives. White authors  or editors have burdened these stories so much with their own ideologies and biases, “there is little  room for the testimony” of the slaves themselves and “few of the details of slave life are  revealed” (Blassingame, p. xxviiii). Thus Levering's narrative leaves a legacy of important questions.  Did Charlotte Blake really want to return herself to slavery and keep her children there? If so, why?  What actually were Margaret Jane Blake's views of abolitionists?

Considering Blake's own decisions about marriage and motherhood for herself, what did it mean to her  from her own perspective to participate in the Brooks-McCormick wedding party and help raise three  generations of prosperous white children? Levering describes Blake as happy in these activities. Yet  she also describes Blake as “unwilling to breed slaves for any master.” Levering further comments: “If  all the bondwomen had been of the same mind, how soon the institution would have vanished from the  earth, and all the misery belonging to it been lifted from the hearts of the holders and the  slaves!” (Levering, p. 13). This part of Levering's narrative most contradicts or complicates her  stereotypical portrayals of Blake as a “Mammy” in ever-loyal service to ever-benevolent slavemasters  and employers. Yet Levering's account still leaves unanswered the many questions it raises about  Blake's own vantage points on the institutions of slavery and domestic service.

Read the full, original biography by Mary Krane Derr in African American National Biography.

View complete story (pdf)

Online Resources

Memoirs of Margaret Jane Blake of Baltimore, Md.: And Selections in Prose and Verse (1897). Documenting the American South Website, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/levering/levering.html 

Bibliography

Blassingame, John W. Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and  Autobiographies (1977).

Davis, Charles Twitchell, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds., The Slave's Narrative (1991).

Giddings, Paula. Where and When I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (2001).

Levering, Sarah R. Memoirs of Margaret Jane Blake of Baltimore, Md.: And Selections in Prose and Verse (1897).

Author

Mary Krane Derr

Adapted by

Jennifer Mojica Santana

Contributing Institutions

Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center

Key Events

1811—12

Margaret Jane Blake is born in Baltimore, Maryland, to Perry and Charlotte Blake, the former a free African American, while the latter was enslaved and worked for the merchant Jesse Levering. During the War of 1812, her father served as a U.S. Navy marine and her mother provided food to the men in the Levering household which, in turn, led her master to grant her manumission. Sarah R. Levering (Jesse’s daughter) recorded that Charlotte tried to return to slavery with no success but arranged for her children to remain in bonds.

1830s

Following the death of Jesse in 1832, the Leverings’ wealth started to diminish and hired Blake to work in different households. When they lived outside of Baltimore, she was allowed to stay there. Moreover, the Levering family allowed Blake “to buy herself [and before she] was old, she had her free papers”. Blake also worked as a servant for Baltimore railroad magnate Walter Booth Brooks, tending to his children.

October 20, 1873

Brooks’ daughter, Eleanor, married William Grigsby McCormick and Blake brought up the rear of the bridal procession, a “crowning indulgence of the life of the affectionate servant”, according to Levering’s records. She then moved to Chicago with the newlyweds and took care of their children.

March 10, 1880

While on a visit to her hometown of Baltimore, at age 69, Blake died of erysipelas. She was buried in Laurel Cemetery (MD), for which Eleanor Brooks McCormick had a headstone inscribed with the statement “Faithful unto Death”.

1897

Through Press of Innes & Son in Philadelphia, PA, Sarah R. Levering published a booklet about Blake’s life, titled Memoirs of Margaret Jane Blake of Baltimore, MD: And Selections in Prose and Verse. The book has come under scrutiny by scholars and considered an “unreliable” narrative by many.