Grace Wisher

An artists depiction of the sewing of the Star-Spangled Banner.
An artist's depiction of the sewing of the Star-Spangled Banner.

Excerpt from "In Full Glory Reflected."

Grace Wisher was a free African American woman who was indentured as a child to the famous Star-Spangled Banner flag seamstress, Mary Pickersgill. As an African American living in the early 19th century, Grace’s story remains mostly unknown, but her role in making the flag was just as critical as those who are better represented by the historical record.

African American Apprentices

Grace had been indentured as an apprentice in 1809, when she was about 10 years old, by her mother, Jenny Wisher, who was a free African American. Indenture contracts were usually signed by the child’s father, but most free African Americans in Baltimore at that time had come from rural slavery, so it is possible that Jenny’s husband was still enslaved elsewhere, or she could have been a widow. Jenny may have chosen to bind out her daughter to help with family expenses, or in hopes of providing her a better future. Economic opportunities for free African American women in Baltimore at that time were extremely limited. Most found work in domestic services, or by providing unskilled labor. An apprenticeship would offer Grace the opportunity to learn skills and a trade during a time when no formal schooling for African American children existed. Additionally, the ability to sew was a sought-after skill by employers looking for domestic help, and it also provided the possibility of self- employment.

The percentage of child apprentices relative to the African American population in Baltimore at that time was very small, and the number of girls was even smaller. Most apprentices were orphans or poor children who were indentured involuntarily by court order, but Maryland law also allowed for children of “lazy, indolent, and worthless” free African Americans to be bound out involuntarily. The rest were indentured voluntarily by their parents, as in Grace’s case. Binding out a free African American child to a stranger’s care was not without risk. Maltreatment and the risk of being kidnapped and sold into slavery would have been concerns for a parent considering an indenture . It is possible that Jenny Wisher and Mary Pickersgill knew each other, and that trust was not an issue. They may have lived in the same area, since two thirds of the African American residents in Mary’s “Old Town” neighborhood at the time were free. Additionally, one of the most important qualifications employers looked for in an apprentice was “character,” and so Mary might have chosen Grace based upon personal knowledge. However, there is no known connection between them.

A historic document about Maryland's apprentice laws.
1808 Apprentice Law of Maryland.

Maryland State Archives

The terms of Grace’s indenture are fairly standard, with Mary promising to provide food, shelter, and clothing, and to teach Grace “the art of Housework and plain sewing.” Mary also promised to pay Grace’s mother $12 at the beginning and end of the indenture, and in exchange, Grace promised to faithfully serve and obey Mary for six years. Up until 1817, the law required that apprentices receive at least a rudimentary education during their indenture, but this provision was often ignored when it came to African American children. Additionally, some indenture arrangements substituted a cash payment in the place of educational instruction. Grace’s indenture contract did not require Mary to provide reading and writing instruction. In contrast, Mary Pickersgill did promise to provide such an education to her white apprentice in 1814, 13-year-old Mary Ann Martin.

Living in Two Worlds

Grace’s work would have included household chores, such as food preparation, laundry, and cleaning, and she likely performed this alongside the one enslaved person, who was likely a woman known to be part of the Pickersgill household. Slave ownership was not uncommon for white families of modest means in Baltimore at the time, with domestic labor being considered the “optimal use” of enslaved girls and women. Both free and enslaved African Americans were viewed primarily as sources of labor, although very few were housed together under the same roof, as was the case in the Pickersgill household. Grace’s performance of household chores would have enabled Mary to focus on growing her flag-making business. However, the indenture terms meant that Grace would have also participated in sewing activities, including the creation of the Star-Spangled Banner flag in 1813. At this point, Grace would have been five years into her apprenticeship, and Mary certainly would have drawn upon her skills to assist in such a massive undertaking.

Working on the flag alongside the Pickersgill women, including Mary’s daughter Caroline, who was around the same age, while sharing chores and probably quarters with the enslaved woman, Grace would have had to straddle two different worlds, navigating the social hierarchy of a mixed household, and accepting the limitations on her freedom. Maryland law required indenture contracts to end at the age of majority, which was sixteen, and so Grace likely left the Pickersgill household in 1815. What happened to Grace after her indenture remains unknown, but what is known, is that Grace Wisher’s contribution to the creation of the Star-Spangled Banner flag deserves to be highlighted as part of its history.

Last updated: January 5, 2021

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