BALTIMORE — Up until a few weeks ago, anyone who walked by Martha Ann "Patty" Atavis' grave in the lush Green Mount Cemetery would think that she was another well-to-do Baltimorean from centuries past. Her grave sits among rows of dead philanthropists and politicians so wealthy or influential that contemporary streets and universities bear their names.
Her headstone tells viewers that Atavis was 58 when she died on February 26, 1874, and was a "devoted nurse of the family of Dr. John Whitridge for over 36 years." Atavis is buried in the Whitridge family plot.
It does not say that she was a domestic slave in pre-Civil War Baltimore.
Atavis' identity was determined after the Maryland Historical Society recently acquired two images of Atavis and supporting documentation at an auction in Sparks, Md. The images are circa 1845 to 1860.
One image, a type of early photograph called a tintype, shows Atavis holding Alice Lee Whitridge, the youngest daughter of Dr. John Whitridge and his wife Catherine Whitridge. The second image, a daguerreotype photograph, shows Atavis sitting by herself.
"Daguerreotypes of slaves by themselves are incredibly rare, let alone ones that have information as to the sitter, which we have both here," said Mark Letzer, the chief development officer at the Maryland Historical Society and the person who acquired the items at auction.
The auction package included documentation about Atavis, including an 1839 bill of sale that identified Atavis as a "slave for life." Her previous owner, Ruth McCubbin, sold Atavis to Whitridge for $200. Atavis was about 23 years old when she was sold. "[The documentation is] really going to open up a lot of avenues for us to investigate more about urban slavery in Baltimore and its role in the family," Letzer said.
The majority of slaves lived in rural areas and worked on plantations. According to information provided by the Maryland Historical Society, only about 5 percent of slaves lived in urban areas in the years leading up to the Civil War.
Baltimore had the largest concentration of freed blacks in the United States, yet still had a relatively high number of urban slaves. There were about 5,000 slaves in Baltimore, with two-thirds of them being women. Most urban slave women were in domestic service like Atavis.
Letzer said it is significant that Atavis was buried in the family plot because it gave her a "family" status. There was also an obituary placed in the Baltimore Sun newspaper when she died in 1874.
It is difficult to say if Atavis' experience was typical of other urban slaves, but Letzer says the Historical Society wants to use the new information about Atavis find out. "We at least have something to begin exploring not only her life but also how it is indicative of other urban slaves in Baltimore," Letzer said.
The images and documentation are currently on display at the Maryland Historical Society. For more information, please call the Historical Society at 410-685-3750 or www.mdhs.org.