American Tapestry

The Slave Owner Who Stitched the Original Star-Spangled Banner

Mary Young Pickersgill’s deeds made herself an American icon. The name of the slave who aided in her most famous labor has been lost to history.

The 30-foot by 42-foot star spangled banner that inspired the national anthem was made in the summer of 1812 by a 37-year-old Baltimore widow named Mary Young Pickersgill.

She completed the task in six weeks, working late into the night with the assistance of her 13-year-old daughter Caroline Pickersgill, 13-year-old niece Eliza Young, and 15-year-old niece Margaret Young. They were joined by a 13-year-old indentured servant, Grace Wisher, who was African-American, but not a slave and likely working under the same arrangement as she would have been had she been white.

By some accounts, they were also aided by an African-American who was a slave and who is listed by the census as living in the rented premises that served as Pickersgill’s residence as well as place of business. The slave’s name is lost to history.

The flag was commissioned at the start of the War of 1812 by U.S. Army Major General George Armistead, the commander at Fort McHenry at the entrance to Baltimore Harbor. Armistead wrote in his instructions: “It is my desire to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.”

That meant Pickersgill needed a bigger space than the flag-making shop she had opened after the death of her husband to support herself and the only one of her four children to survive past infancy. Her daughter would write in a letter to Armistead’s daughter:

“The flag being so very large, mother was obliged to obtain permission from the proprietors of Claggetts brewery which was in our neighborhood, to spread it out in their malt house; and I remember seeing my mother down on the floor, placing the stars.”

The task would later be termed Herculean, but Hercules was a guy and therefore not likely to have been able to demonstrate such precision along with considerable endurance. Call it Pickersgill-ean. She added a final touch, without which Francis Scott Key might never had been inspired to write the poem that became the lyrics for “The Star Spangled Banner.”

“After the completion of the flag, she superintended the topping of it, having it fastened in the most secure manner to prevent its being torn away by (cannon) balls,” the daughter reported in the letter. “The wisdom of her precaution was shown during the engagement: many shots piercing it, but it still remained firm to the staff.”

Following the battle, Armistead must have understood that this was not just any flag and that Pickersgill was not just any flag maker. Pickersgill’s daughter would write to Armistead’s daughter:

“Your father (Armistead) declared that no one but the maker of the flag should mend it, and requested that the rents should merely be bound around.”

With her renown as the maker of the original star spangled banner, Pickersgill prospered enough to purchase the building where she lived and worked. She was also able to found America's first organization dedicated to assisting women who had fallen on hard times. Her Impartial Female Humane Society arranged for employment and housing for its beneficiaries, as well as school vouchers for their children. She subsequently established a home for aged women and then one for men.

Pickersgill was a pioneering feminist ideal of all-American entrepreneurship and civic responsibility and she would have seemed the perfect person to have made the Star Spangled Banner were it not for a document dated April 14, 1857.

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As cited in the book “Mary Young Pickersgill Flag Maker of the Star-Spangled Banner,” the document passed title of Pickersgill’s building to her daughter at the time of her death six months later. It added:

"Also the following described or mentioned Negro slaves for life to wit: Emily aged thirty years, Jane aged twenty four, and Julia aged twenty four years and Maurice boy three years and also all the furniture goods and chattels and effects belonging to me and now in the dwelling house.”

Pickersgill apparently no longer had the unnamed female slave, who would have been older than those who are listed. The new slaves – for whom no last names are listed — were all born subsequent to the making of the Star Spangled Banner.

The maker of the great flag seems to have used her new prosperity to purchase four slaves.

The slaves were freed seven years later by the Emancipation Proclamation. The daughter proved not to be much of a businesswoman when on her own and the shop failed. She herself had fallen on hard times in 1876, when she read a newspaper report that the Star Spangled Banner was to be placed on display at the Centennial celebration in Philadelphia. She wrote to Armistead’s daughter with a request:

“I am widowed and childless, and now find myself, in my seventy-sixth year, in feeble health, and with the barest pittance of support. My friends here in Baltimore have suggested that if these particulars, met with your approbation, and were placed on a card attached to the flag, they might excite among patriotic people, some compassion for my helpless condition; but I would leave this matter entirely up to your judgment.”

But the newspaper report had been wrong and the flag was not in fact put on display. Pickersgill spent her final days in the Home for the Aged that her mother established. The flag her mother made eventually passed into the care of the Smithsonian Institution.

In late November, 2008, the newly restored Star Spangled Banner went on permanent display the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The fact that this most famous of flags had been made by a slave-owner who then used her resulting prosperity to buy four more slaves could have been seen as a measure of how far we had come with the election of Barack Obama that very month.

On what was both Martin Luther King Day and the eve of Obama’s first inauguration, a five year-old African-American named Marcus Scott did a happy dance with an American flag on the Capitol grounds. His mother, Alison Scott, had brought him from Brooklyn to witness history. She had traced her ancestry back to the 1780s in Virginia.

"They were slaves," she told a reporter.

Her son seemed a figure of hope itself as he danced smiling with his own little Star Spangled Banner.

"It's nice to be able to wave the flag and say we belong here," his smiling mother said.

She was quick to admonish the child when he chanced to allow the edge of the flag to brush the grass.

"You’re not allowed to put it on the ground," she told him. "Just remember that. Keep the flag high."

Flags by the hundreds of thousands waved among the nearly two million people who gathered the following day as Obama took the oath of office on the steps of the Capitol, which was built with the help of slaves. The ceremony concluded with a voice booming out over the pubic address system.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please rise for the singing of our National Anthem by the United States Navy Sea Chanters Chorus.”

Anybody who was sitting joined the many who were already standing and our new President was among those who sang along with the sailors. Obama then took up residence in the White House, which was also built with the help of slaves.

But even as we witnessed proof of how far we had come, we were soon confronted with proof of how far we still had to go. Obama encountered opposition so intense and disproportionate and unreasoning that it could only have been fueled by race. Some of his opponents were so determined to portray him as an Other that they continued to question whether he had been born in America even after he released documentary proof that he should not have needed to provide in the first place.

The economy largely recovered from near disaster and the American auto industry came back from near death and Osama Bin Laden met justice and health-care insurance was extended to millions more and gay marriage became a recognized right and the naysayers still insisted that Obama was a disaster. The birther-in-chief, Donald Trump, spoke lies to power, saying it like it isn’t and adding a good dose of bigotry and fear mongering. He thereby became the Republican nominee.

On Friday, Trump finally came out and flatly said that Obama had been born in the United States. Trump of course added the lie that Hillary Clinton had started the birther movement. He is seeking to hold onto the crazies even as he seeks to gain more of the simply disaffected voters he will need to win.

Meanwhile, as Obama prepares to leave office and end eight years that began with such promise, we have gone from a youngster doing a happy dance on the Capitol grounds with a flag that suddenly seemed everyone’s flag to a pro football player who declines to stand for the playing of the Star Spangled Banner.

Those of us who love the flag and have seen it cover the coffins of far too many great Americans cannot help but feel that anyone who refuses to stand for the Star Spangled Banner is showing disrespect.

But what some of us see as disrespect is nothing compared to what all of us should consider betrayal.

The person who should most offend us is not someone who refuses to stand for the national anthem but anyone who stands and solemnly places a hand over a heart that harbor hates and prejudices that make us less than the land of the free and the home of the brave.