Freedom Papers Reveal Berks’ Past
READING, Pa. (AP) – Sixty years before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, John Teysher of Oley Township felt the spirit of independence and freed two slaves.
“From motives of benevolence and humanity, I manumit, set free from slavery, my Negro man Michael,’’ Teysher wrote in a declaration of freedom filed with the Berks County recorder of deeds on Oct. 15, 1802.
Two months later, around Christmas, Teysher freed a female slave named Betts.
The papers that granted freedom to Teysher’s slaves went unnoticed for more than 200 years in deed books stored in the county archives.
But recently, an alert county clerk stumbled upon them in the process of digitizing the office’s records. The clerk noticed that, for some entries, the deed book index listed only first names and the last name “Negro.’’
“This is amazing history,’’ declared Frederick C. Sheeler, recorder of deeds. “And it’s been buried here for years.’’
In all, Sheeler’s staff found freedom papers for six slaves owned by Berks County masters.
The documents had been filed with the recorder of deeds – slaves were considered property at the time – between 1800 and 1808.
Frank Gilyard, president of the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum in Reading, was given copies of the freedom papers for the museum’s collection.
“It was like somebody gave me a priceless gift,’’ Gilyard says. “I was bubbling inside.’’
The documents confirm a long-held assertion, common in the black community, that there had been slaves in Berks County.
“A lot of people still didn’t believe we had slaves here,’’ Gilyard said. “These papers are proof that we did.’’
Gilyard, an authority on black history in Berks County, was elated to learn that Berks County masters freed their slaves six decades before the Civil War.
He wonders if the owners might have been Quakers, early advocates of the abolition of slavery.
Michelle Mart, who teaches history at Penn State Berks, said the papers are indicative of historical trends of the period.
“They reflect two historical developments – an upsurge in manumissions following the Revolutionary War and the trend in northern states to outlaw slavery in the late 18th and early 19th centuries,’’ she said.
Sealed from the ravages of time inside 4-inchthick deed books, the documents are remarkably well preserved.
Written in flowing longhand penmanship, they’re actually transcriptions of the original freedom papers. The originals were normally given to the slave to use as proof of freedom, necessary to get a job or own property.
Both chilling and uplifting, the documents echo a sound of freedom that must have been nearly incomprehensible to the enslaved.
“A Negro slave named George who, by the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, is a slave for life,’’ one passage reads, “is and shall be free and his own master from the date hereof, for all intents and purposes whatsoever.’’
The document, written by executors of the estate of Nicholas Kintzer of Tulpehocken Township, was recorded by Justice of the Peace P. Frailey “on the nineteenth day of July in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and two.’’
One of the documents was notarized by Justice of the Peace George Boone, frontiersman Daniel Boone’s uncle.
In another document, Jacob Hubley frees a slave named Adam, but makes it conditional upon Adam remaining as a servant for 15 years. The document, filed in 1800, says Adam “shall be his own master’’ on July 4, 1815.
Since the documents do not list last names for the slaves, Gilyard believes it would be difficult to determine if they settled in Berks after being granted freedom. And, if they had, whether any of their descendants remain here.
Robert S. Jefferson, president of NAACP Reading Chapter, commended the recorder of deeds staff for finding such a critical piece of black history.
He’s hopeful that other keys to understanding the roots of black people in Berks might be found.
“These stories need to be told, celebrated and never forgotten,’’ Jefferson said. “There are few things as powerful and important as a people steeped in its history.’’