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Sarah R. Levering
Memoirs of Margaret Jane Blake of Baltimore, Md.: and Selections in Prose and Verse
Philadelphia: Press of Innes & Son, 1897.


Little is known about the life of Margaret Jane Blake beyond the biographical information recorded by Sarah R. Levering and reproduced here. Blake was reportedly born in 1811 to Perry Blake, a free African American and U.S. Navy marine who served during the War of 1812, and Charlotte, his wife, enslaved to Jesse Levering of Baltimore, Maryland. Although Mr. Levering granted Charlotte freedom long before the Civil War, her children remained slaves (allegedly at her request). After the birth of Sarah Levering in 1825, Margaret Jane (whom Levering also calls "Margy") helped to raise the eventual author of her Memoirs. In later life, Blake worked as a hired servant for various families in and around Baltimore, including the family of Walter Booth Brooks (1823-1896), one of the city's top civic and business leaders. When Brooks's daughter Eleanor ("Nellie") married, Blake moved to Chicago with her and her new husband, William McCormick. During a return visit to Baltimore, she fell ill and eventually died at the Baltimore Infirmary on March 10, 1880. Few historical records of the author, Sarah Levering, have survived, but the Memoirs reveal her to be a dedicated Christian, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of Baltimore, active in social causes, and inclined to dabble in poetry.

Memoirs of Margaret Jane Blake was published in 1897, although several critical sources have mistakenly listed its publication date as 1834. In the preface, Levering states that proceeds from the book would support the construction of "a manual labor school for the benefit of the Afro-American citizens, as they prefer being called" (p. v). She also notes that the poems collected in the volume were composed by "persons with whom [Blake] was acquainted," and that one poem, "The Bride," contained "the maiden name of the lady in whose service she died" (p. vi). This poem is an acrostic that spells out the name "Nellie Brooks" (p. 38). The volume also contains Levering's essays on "Happiness" (pp. 23-25), a sighting of the "Aurora Borealis of April 15, 1869" (pp. 26-28), a dream about an "Unwelcome Guest" (pp. 32-36), and advice for children to "Love One Another" (pp. 44-48).

Levering explains that as a young girl, "Margaret Jane . . . throve with the children of the family until the measles broke out," but during her convalescence, she "was indulged over-much, perhaps, and became somewhat self-willed" (p. 8). This is the first of many authorial comments that may cause modern readers to raise an eyebrow; as slave narrative scholar John Blassingame has noted, narratives such as Levering's "contain so many of the editors' views that there is little room for the testimony of the fugitives" (p. xxviii). Years later, after Margy had fallen and been injured, Levering's father purchases a second house slave, Ann Dutton. Levering describes this purchase as an act of great kindness: "My father attended a sale of household goods and chattels; a sickly-looking girl, emaciated to a painful degree to sensitive perceptions, moved his compassion, and Ann Dutton was sent home to my mother's fostering care" (p. 11). Blake does not get along with Dutton (who later changes her name to Ann Duncan) because she is a "bought slave" of "mixed blood" and a "woman of fashion": "Thus there were three good and sufficient reasons," Levering writes, "for their frequent disagreements" (pp. 11-12). One afternoon, under the auspices of attending a funeral, Ann leaves the house and is never seen again.

After the Levering family's finances grow tight because of "death and reverse of fortune," Blake is allowed to move into her own residence, and she goes to work as a paid servant for other families (p. 14). Under the employ of one mistress, "Mrs. G," she travels to New York City, where she is showered with the attentions of several "impudent Irish waiters," but she declines to "walk out with them to view the city" because, Levering explains, "Colored women are disgraced in Baltimore if they are seen in the company of white men on the streets" (p. 15). Later, Blake goes to work for the Brooks family, where she becomes known as "Mammy Blake" and raises "Baby Eleanor . . . to womanhood" (p. 19). When Eleanor, or "Nellie," marries "Mr. McC., of Chicago" (whom Clayton Hall identifies as William G. McCormick), "Mammy Blake [brings] up the rear of the bridal procession." ( 20) Levering writes that this role in the ceremony "was the crowning indulgence of the life of the affectionate servant" (p. 20).

Blake moves to Chicago with the newlywed McCormicks and becomes the nurse for a new generation of white children after Walter and Mary McCormick are born. But during a visit to Baltimore over Christmas 1879, she contracts a cold that, Levering explains, "developed into erysipelas," a painful skin rash (p. 21). Therefore, Blake remains in Baltimore when the McCormicks return to Chicago. It is not clear why this rash leads to Blake's death, but Levering explains that "father and the doctor thought it best for her to go to the . . . Baltimore Infirmary," where Blake dies on March 10, 1880.

Sarah Levering's account of Blake's life reveals more about the white families whom Blake served than about the woman whose "Memoirs" Levering supposedly records. There are only four direct quotations of Blake's own words in the narrative, and all four explicitly counter the opinions of "mischievous" abolitionists (p. 9) and "impudent" northern whites (p. 16). Levering's account of Blake's life seems designed to support the paternalistic Southern theory of the loyal, happy slave (or servant), "Faithful unto Death"—as they plan to inscribe her gravestone (p. 21). Levering's language reflects this paternalism, as Blake is revered by the author for her "childlike simplicity," but "allowed" to "buy herself" and to live on her own (p. 21, p. 18). Such an account may not shed much light on the actual identity of the former slave, but it demonstrates the attitudes and elaborate social codes that accompanied the complicated transition from slavery to something like freedom for African Americans like Margaret Jane Blake.

Works Consulted: Blassingame, John W., Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1977; Davis, Charles Twitchell and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds., The Slave's Narrative, New York: Oxford UP, 1991; "Death of Margaret Jane Blake," History Engine: Tools for Collaborative Education and Research, University of Richmond, accessed 7 April 2009; Hall, Clayton Colman, Baltimore: Its History and Its People, New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1912; Hull, Gloria T., But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies, New York: Feminist Press, 1985.

Patrick E. Horn

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