Slavery at Liberty Hall: The Stepney Family, Part 3

By Sara Elliott, Director

Stepney Family blog

This is the third in a multi-part blog about the enslaved Stepney family that lived and worked at Liberty Hall. Thanks to the Brown family archives, public documents like tax records and censuses, and publications like city directories we have been able to piece together a little of the Stepneys’ history. Unfortunately, we only know where they lived and what kind of work they did. We do not know how Miles and Hannah met. We do not know what kind of disability their daughter Mourning had. We do not know anything about their hopes and dreams.

Researching the lives of enslaved African Americans is made harder because of the anonymity of slavery. Considered property they were often listed on tax or census records by age and gender—no names. Many enslaved people could not read and write which prohibited them from writing letters or keeping diaries—documents that reveal the more personal side of someone’s life. Although our research is ongoing, we may never know more than we do right now about Miles and Hannah Stepney and their children. Maybe someday we will find a descendent and they will have family stories that tell us more about the Stepneys and their lives during and after slavery.

George Stephens/Stepney (1817-?)                                                                                     

A young man named George Stephens was named in a deed of manumission John Brown filed on May 4, 1836.  The deed directed that eighteen-year-old George be “set free from slavery” on his twenty-fifth birthday—March 14, 1842.[i] John’s will, prepared at the same time, transferred George to Orlando until the manumission date to make up for Orlando’s portion of the Brown land being smaller than Mason’s.[ii]

George appears only three times in Brown family letters.  In June 1836, Orlando Brown wrote that George was tending to corn with his father Miles.[iii] Thirteen years later in a letter to Orlando, Gratz Brown described a visit with Joseph Stepney and mentioned Selim Stepney but noted “Of George I have heard nothing.”[iv] Gratz mentioned George a year later in a letter to Orlando: “George has had an attack of delirium tremors, and gallopped thro the streets of Louisville one day in his short tail, whereupon he was placed in the Work House.  He there recovered from his insanity, but being let out began drinking again, and may now be considered a confirmed lunatic.  Selim is endeavoring to get him placed in the Lexington Asylum.”[v]

In the 1860 census, 40-year-old George was listed in the household of his 90-year-old father Miles.  Five years later, a man named George Stepney enlisted in the 119th Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry and served in Kentucky until 1866.[vi]

The 1870 and 1880 federal census included two listings for men named George Stepney in Louisville.  In 1870 a George Stepney, age 50, was working as a laborer and living with 45-year-old Ed Stepney, a cook. The 1880 census listed a 65-year-old widower named George Stepney working as a laborer.  The birthplaces of his father and mother—Virginia and North Carolina—suggest that he was the George Stepney once owned by John Brown.

Men named George Stepney were listed in Louisville city directories several times between 1869 and 1880.  A barber named George Stepney lived on Brook Street in 1869.  The 1873 directory listed a steward named George Stepney who boarded on Ninth Street near Walnut and a George Stepney who worked as a porter at the clothing store of Aron & Cerf.  A waiter George Stepney lived on the corner of Ninth and Chestnut in 1875, and in 1880, a porter named George Stepney lived on Walnut Street.

Mary Stepney (1819-?)                                                                                                         

The name Mary Stepney appears often in Brown family letters because she served as a maid to Margaretta Brown, who described Mary’s 1819 birth as a “burden.”[vii] Eight years later, Margaretta taught Mary to read and described her progress in a letter to Orlando: “Mary promises to be a great scholar—she learns faster than any child I ever taught—with about four month teaching, she spells accurately in five syllables, and begins to read easy lessons very well.”[viii] Margaretta’s account book included numerous entries about clothing purchases for Mary, but it is possible that some were for her future daughter-in-law, Mary Watts Brown.[ix]

Mary’s education may have been intended to prepare her to serve as Margaretta’s maid.  In 1836, Mary accompanied the Browns on a long trip East, where she worked as both “chambermaid and washer” in the home where the Browns stayed in New York because the maid there was filling in for the cook.[x]

The trip also exposed Mary to things she might not have experienced in Frankfort.  Margaretta wrote in a letter that Mary was “all astonishment & finds there are ‘many things’ between Frankfort & Phila. which ‘were never dreamed of in her philosophy.’” In New York, abolitionists learned of her presence and attempted to convince her to flee, but she chose to remain with the Browns.[xi]

Shortly before the journey, John Brown filed a deed directing that Mary be “set free from slavery” in eight years.[xii] At the same time, he prepared a will bequeathing Mary to Margaretta until the date of her manumission and directing that Mary be allowed to select furniture from his estate to furnish a room for herself in Liberty Hall.[xiii]

When Margaretta died in 1838, Mary was with her.[xiv] After that time, Mary’s whereabouts are uncertain.  Census records from 1840, 1850, and 1870 listed a black woman named Mary Demars (or De Mar) as the wife of Hayden Demars, an African American farmer living in Frankfort.  Their oldest child was Harriet, born around 1835.  In an 1835 letter to Mary Watts Brown, Margaretta Brown mentioned that she, Mary, and Harriet had moved into Mary Watts’ bedroom.[xv]

Kentucky records also noted the 1850 marriage of a Mary Stepney and John Mills, both persons of color.  And Louisville city directories published in the 1870s listed a laundress named Mary Stepney. Selim Stepney named one of his daughters Mary, so the 1870s reference may be to her.

James Stephens/Stepney (1821-?)                                                                                      

A young man named James Stephens is mentioned in a deed John Brown filed on May 4, 1836.  The deed directed that he be “set free from slavery” on his twenty-fifth birthday—August 14, 1846.[xvi] In a will filed at the same time, John Brown gave Miles and Hannah Stepney the services of their son, James Stepney, until he turned 25.[xvii]

The name James only appears once in Brown family letters.  In an 1823 letter to Orlando, Margaretta passed on a request from John that Miles and James have a “good stock of wood laid in before he returns” so that they could begin to harvest the corn.  As James Stepney would have been two years old at the time, it appears that there was another enslaved worker named James.  But 1848 tax records document that an African-American man named “Jas. Stepney” owned a town lot in South Frankfort valued at $800.

Louisville city directories published in the 1870s and 80s included the name James Stepney several times.  The 1872 directory listed James Stepney as an officer of the Louisville Black Odd Fellows Union No. 1341.  A year later, the directory listed a James Stepney who was working as a porter for the clothing store of Aron & Cerf, which also employed a man named George Stepney as a porter. A porter named James Stepney was listed in the 1875 directory, and the 1880 directory listed a James Stepney who was a Pullman porter.  Kentucky marriage records document the 1881 union of James Stepney and Laura Spalding in Louisville. 

Around 1858, James Stepney’s older brother Selim and his wife named a son James.  The 1880 census lists 22-year-old James in the Louisville household of his mother and notes his occupation as “porter in an office.”  That James Stepney may be the man listed in the 1910 census as a resident of Chicago—a widower working as a janitor whose parents were born in Kentucky.  The exact identity of the James Stepney in the 1870s and 1880 Louisville city directories is uncertain.

To be continued . . .

Endnotes 

[i] Franklin County, Kentucky, Deed Book Q, pp. 271-73.

[ii] Last Will of Senator John Brown, May 4, 1836.  Franklin County, Kentucky, Will Book D.

[iii] Orlando Brown to John Brown, June 23, 1836, Filson Historical Society.

[iv] Benjamin Gratz Brown to Orlando Brown, July 30, 1849, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.

[v] Benjamin Gratz Brown to Orlando Brown, May 31, 1850, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.

[vi] National Park Service Soldier and Sailor Database.

[vii] Margaretta Brown to Elizabeth Love, November 29, 1819, Private Collection.

[viii] Margaretta Brown to Orlando Brown, March 20, 1827, Filson Historical Society.

[ix] Margaretta Brown account book, 1828-1837, Liberty Hall Historic Site Collections.

[x] Margaretta Brown to Orlando Brown, June 4, 1836, Liberty Hall Historic Site Collections.

[xi] Margaretta Brown to Mary Watts Brown, May 20, 1836, Liberty Hall Historic Site Collections and Helen Knox from Margaretta Brown Barret scrapbook, 1903, Liberty Hall Historic Site Collections Transcript.

[xii] Franklin County, Kentucky, Deed Book Q, pp. 271-73.

[xiii] [xiii]Last Will of Senator John Brown, May 4, 1836.  Franklin County, Kentucky, Will Book D.

[xiv] Mary Yoder Brown to Eliza Poignand, June 3, 1838, Private Collection.

[xv] Margaretta Brown to Mary Watts Brown, May 3, 1835, Filson Historical Society.

[xvi] Franklin County, Kentucky, Deed Book Q, pp. 271-73.

[xvii] Last Will of Senator John Brown, May 4, 1836.  Franklin County, Kentucky, Will Book D.


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