This is the first of our three-part celebration for Black History Month 2022, focusing on elements of African American history within the Daughters of Charity archives collection.
Particularly in the 19th century, there can be a sparsity of details about the lives of many individual people. Although the Daughters’ collection tries to gather as much information as possible about individual sisters and their works, there are many times where the only information we have about a sister is the barebones about the important dates in her life and the places she was sent on mission. When it comes to finding details of laypeople and lay associates, this often becomes even more difficult.
It speaks to his influence on the members of the community that the archives contain numerous individual references about James Augustine Briscoe of Emmitsburg, MD. It is even more notable that Augustine, as he was called, was able to have this influence as an African American in the 19th century United States.
When Augustine died in 1897, the provincial annals – or chronicles of the community – included a lengthy newspaper obituary pasted from the Catoctin Clarion newspaper. Titled, “Death of an old Employee,” the clipping describes him as “James Augustine Briscoe, colored, who died at St. Joseph’s academy, Wednesday, had been a faithful employee at that institution for many years…”
The article is written in the somewhat condescending way of the time period that many white publications used towards African Americans, with lines such as “Like most of his race, of a sanguine temperament, he recognized and enjoyed the bright side of life, being scarcely impressed by gloom or sorrow.” However, the article does contain important tidbits about his life. Firstly, that his full name was James Augustine Briscoe, which was helpful in finding information about his life in other sources. The Daughters collections usually refer to him exclusively as “Augustine” or “Gustin.” It also reveals that he was a longtime member of the Academy’s teamsters and that he had health problems during the last year of his life, as “the once erect and stalwart frame bowed under the weight of years, had been struggling against growing infirmities.” And, finally, it shows the esteem in which he was held by the large number of employees who attended his funeral.
The first mention of Briscoe in the collections is found in the provincial annals on March 1, 1839: “After dinner Sr. Mary Felix [McQuaid] & Sr. Margaret [unknown] went on an errand of charity sent by our Rev. Sup. To the family of the Miller’s (odd people) went also to see a poor black fellow, Augustin Briscoe, very ill but good & piously disposed.”
Sister Mary Felix McQuaid was later a nurse during the Civil War, and likely went to provide some care for Augustine when he was very ill. In a portion of the annals written by a community member after his death in 1897, Sr. Mary Felix apparently told the story of how she met Augustine: “He was so badly crushed by an encounter with the animals, a stampede or something, that he nearly lost his life on the way, and arrived home in a most critical condition. The Sisters went to see him – Sr. Felix McQuaid amongst the number, who remembers the occasion well. He slowly recovered, and after that came to live & die at St. Joseph’s. He was born in 1820.”
Outside of the Daughters collections, Augustine can be found for the first time in the 1820 census as a single tally mark in Frederick County under “Free Colored Persons – Males – Males under 14 years”. The name he falls under is James Briscoe, because the census at the time only listed the head of the household rather than all names. James is likely an uncle or a grandfather, although it may be his father (more on that in a bit). The household contained 13 people, all of them listed as “Free Colored Persons.”
On February 15, 1844, the parish ledgers from St. Joseph’s Church in Emmitsburg lists, in Latin, that a son of Briscoe and a daughter of the family Dunstan were married. Although this does not specify which Briscoe or Dunstan, the 1850 census lists James (29) and Mary Ann Briscoe (31) living together, alongside two other African American individuals, Margaret Coates (34) and Andrew Dorsey (46). James and Andrew are listed with the occupation “Laborer,” while Margaret is designated with an out-of-date term for living with a disability. All of them are marked as being unable to read or write.
The entry immediately preceding theirs is another Briscoe family, which implies nearness of homes, John (age 71) and Jane (age 57). Per the 1897 written obituary for Augustine: “All of [Augustine’s] life nearly has been passed on St. Joseph’s Farm. His mother, black jane, worked here & Augustine came to work here when he was nine years of age.” These two are his parents, who apparently were caring for a younger Mary Jane Briscoe, age 15. Unlike John, Jane, and Augustine, Mary Jane could apparently read and write. (You can even see the “odd people,” the Millers, down the page!)
The elder Briscoe passed away the following year, per the St. Joseph’s Parish registers, at age 73. The entry provides some more history of the Briscoe family, as he “came to Emmitsburg in the year 1800, & was for 57 years a member of this congregation.”
In 1858, James and Mary Ann had a son, John, who begins to appear on the payroll of St. Joseph’s Academy in the early 1870s. Some of the later censuses begin to correct errors in the earlier ones, as by 1880, it is indicated that, although Many Ann cannot write, she does know how to read.
In the “Talks of our Ancient Sisters,” taken between 1877 and 1902, some of the memories of the longest living sisters and St. Joseph’s Academy students were written down for the first time. In these, Sister Helena Elder told how Mother Etienne Hall would help provide the Briscoes with things like linen shirts. As a symbol of gratitude, Augustine named his daughter Etienne. However, she does not appear in any censuses, so we are not sure if something happened to her, or if Etienne is, like Augustine, a name that she was referred to rather than what would appear on a formal document. We simply do not have a document that provides one of these keys, like the newspaper obituary that calls Briscoe “James Augustine.”
In his years at St. Joseph’s, we know that Augustine did a large amount of work with the horses and the carriages. In 1886, he was tasked with chauffeuring Cardinal James Gibbons when he visited campus. We also know that he was entrusted with a certain amount of the banking and money-keeping for the community and would be the point person to conduct financial transactions at the bank in Gettysburg where the sisters held their accounts.
In 1896, Augustine finally retired. His account page shows that he received $15 per month in wages at this point. On February 20, there is a note that Augustine’s due wages be “transferred to John Briscoe’s acct.” On December 14, instead of his monthly wage, Augustine received “Pocket money” of $2 per month. On November 14, 1895, it is written “Augustine’s Wages stopped but he has a home for life. Augustine Died Jan. 20, 1897.”
As a brief digression about Augustine’s son John, he received $12 per month in 1895. For comparison, the next page of the ledger for John Topper, whom the 1900 census also identifies as a laborer and as White. The two Johns, White and Black, received equal wages.
Perhaps the most impressive information in the collections regarding Augustine is that the “Talks of the Ancient Sisters” include Augustine’s words themselves, which allows him to speak for himself: his own memories, interests, and abilities and knowledge. For an African American, who lived in the 19th century and was unable to read or write, this is a rare feature prior to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects of the 1930s. Included here, in his own words, is a sample of Augustine’s knowledge and love for horses and horseracing.
September 4, 1886 – “Dolly is May’s mother, isn’t she Augustine?” And Dolly it was that ran away with Father Mandine.”
“Yes, Sister,” and Augustine laughed.
“That was a great race, Gustin; you saw it?”
He laughed again. “Yes, Sister, I saw it. I was in that race. I’ll tell you how it was. The wind was so bad Fitz couldn’t go by himself, so I went in with him on the mule, and Fitz was on Dolly, leading Jenny Grant. Father Lavezeir was to come out but when Father Mandine heard that two horses were there, he said he would come too. So Father Mandine got on Dolly and he was riding up and down, up and down there before the Sisters’ house saying, “Are you ready? Are you ready?” And Father Lavezeir got on Jennie and then Fitz got behind me on the mule; and Father was calling out “are you ready? are you ready?” Then we started; Father ahead and Father Lavezeir next, and I after, with Fitz behind me on the mule. It was a sight, but when we got there by the haystacks, Father Lavezeir lost his scarf and Fitz got down to get it; meantime Father went off ahead. It was a sight! If it had been daylight and anybody had seen us, they’d died a laughing. Well when I got up to the sacristy door, there was Dolly a standing, and Father in the sacristy. The next thing I heard was he was sick. And Gustin used to horses and their capers all his life, took a good laugh. (It was a serious affair, however.)
“Wait, Sister he continued, until we get down here a bit, and I’ll tell you a joke on Father Maller [the Vincentian priest-Director of the Sisters, 1850-1853].” So after a little when we had reached a smooth part of the road and the mules were trotting along finely, he resumed “you know Father Maller was superior here and lived in town. We had some sheep down there in the graveyard woods, and a cross ram among them ran at him to butt him. He saw it and stepped aside; it ran at him again and he stepped aside; and he stayed there a little while teasing it; every time it would run at him, he’d step aside; so presently the ram go’, tired and went away, and Father began saying his office again, walking along. Presently the ram came up behind him and gave him a butt that threw him down. He got up, his cassock all muddy and dusty and came to the house. The Sisters wanted to know what happened to his cassock, but he only said he’d got mud on it and wouldn’t tell them how. but he told me, and said, sometime you can tell the Sisters how it was I got muddy!”
Other members of the Briscoe family are scattered around the census and church records and would require further research to properly create a family tree (unless of course, somebody reading this has already done so and would like to reach out to us).
The St. Joseph’s Provincial House collection contains voluminous financial records from the 19th and early 20th centuries, which could assist those in the area researching their genealogies. Some laypeople even get further mention in other documents in the archives that provide a fuller story to their ancestors. It is a notable event that one for whom the most can be discovered is a member of the historic community of free African Americans in the north of Frederick County.