Who where the Edmonson’s Sister? They were black American sisters, who became celebrities because of the Pearl Incident of 1848.
Mary Edmonson (1832–1853) and Emily Edmonson (1835–1895), were two of thirteen children born to a free black man and an enslaved woman Paul and Amelia Edmonson, in Montgomery County, Maryland. They were born into slavery as well as their siblings, since the 17th century law stated “to all slave decreed that the children of an enslave mother inherited their mother’s status, by the principle of partus sequitur ventrem“.
Their father, Paul Edmonson was free by his own will. Mr. Edmonson purchased land in the Norbeck area of Montgomery County, where he farmed and established his family. Amelia was allowed to live with her husband, but continued to work for her master. The couple’s children began work at an early age as servants, laborers and skilled workers. From about the ages of 13 or 14, they were “hired out” to work in elite private homes in nearby Washington D.C. under a type of lease arrangement, where their wages went to the slaveholder. This practice of “hiring out” grew from the shift away from the formerly labor-intensive tobacco plantation system, leaving planters in this part of the United States with surplus slaves. They hired out slaves or sold them to traders for the Deep South. Many slaves worked as servants in homes and hotels of the capital. Men were sometimes hired out as craftsmen, artisans or to work at the ports on the Potomac River.
By 1848 four of the older Edmonson sisters had bought their freedom (with the help of husbands and family), but the master had decided against allowing any more of the siblings to do so. Six were hired out for his benefit, including the two youngest sisters.
On April 15, 1848, the schooner Pearl docked at a Washington wharf. The Edmonson sisters and four of their brothers joined a large group of slaves (a total of 76) in an attempt to escape on the Pearl to freedom in New Jersey. Starting as a modest attempt of escape for seven slaves, the effort had been widely communicated and organized within the communities of free blacks and slaves, changing it to a major and unified effort, without the knowledge of the white organizers or crew. Seventy-seven slaves boarded the Pearl, which was to sail down the Potomac River and up the Chesapeake Bay to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, from where they would travel up the Delaware River to freedom in New Jersey, a total of 225 miles. At the time, Emily was 13 years old and Mary was 15 or 16.
The Pearl, with the fugitives hidden among boxes, began its way down the Potomac. It was delayed overnight by the shift in tides and then had to wait out rough weather from its anchor down the bay. In Washington the alarm was raised in the morning, as numerous slaveholders found their slaves had escaped. When the Pearl arrived in Washington, a mob awaited the ship. The fugitive slaves were taken to a local jail and later sold to the Deep South. It was later reported that when somebody from the crowd asked the Edmonson girls if they were ashamed for what they had done, Emily replied proudly that they would do exactly the same thing again.
In New Orleans, the other siblings were forced to stay for days in an open porch facing the street waiting for buyers. The sisters were handled brusquely and exposed to obscene comments. Then yellow fever epidemic erupted in New Orleans. The slave traders transported the Edmonson sisters back to Alexandria as a measure to protect their investments.
In Alexandria, the Edmonson sisters were hired out to do laundering, ironing and sewing, with wages going to the slave traders. They were locked up at night. Paul Edmonson continued his campaign to free his daughters while Bruin & Hill demanded $2,250 for their release.
With letters from Washington-area supporters, Paul Edmonson met Henry Ward Beecher (June 24, 1813 – March 8, 1887), a young preacher with a church in Brooklyn, New York who was known to support abolitionism. Beecher’s church members raised the funds to purchase the Edmonson sisters and give them freedom. Beecher went to Washington to arrange the transaction.
Mary Edmonson and Emily Edmonson were emancipated on November 4, 1848. The family gathered for a celebration at another sister’s house in Washington. Beecher’s continued to contribute money to send the sisters to school for their education. They first enrolled at New York Central College, an interracial institution in Cortland, New York. They also worked as cleaning servants to support themselves.
The sisters became celebrities in the United States abolitionist movement, in the summer of 1850, they attended the Slave Law Convention, an anti-slavery meeting in Cazenovia, New York organized by local abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld (November 23, 1803 – February 3, 1895), to demonstrate against the Fugitive Slave Act soon passed by the United States Congress. Under this act, slave owners had powers to arrest fugitive slaves in the North. The convention declared all slaves to be prisoners of war and warned the nation of an unavoidable insurrection of slaves unless they were emancipated.
In 1853, the Edmonson sisters attended the Young Ladies Preparatory School at Oberlin College in Ohio through the support of Beecher and his sister, Harriet Elisabeth Beecher Stowe (June 14, 1811 – July 1, 1896), author of Uncle Tom Cabin. Since its founding in the 1830s, the school had admitted blacks as well as whites, and was a center of abolitionist activism. Six months after arriving at Oberlin, Mary Edmonson died of tuberculosis.
At age 25 in 1860, Emily Edmonson married Larkin Johnson. They returned to the Sandy Springs, Maryland area and lived there for twelve years before moving to Anacostia in Washington, DC. There they purchased land and became founding members of the Hillsdale community, Emily along with her husband remained working in the abolitionist movement, until her death on September 15, 1895.