A local slave story almost forgotten

IMAGE: Henry Vinton Plummer.

BY DR. LEIGH RYAN

A local slave escaped, fought for the US Navy in the Civil War, attended seminary and pastored churches and missions, served as the first African American chaplain in the US Regular Army, but was dishonorably discharged for his activism. More than a century later, the dishonorable discharge was changed to honorable. Thursday evening, his story came to Takoma Park as part of the ”We are Takoma” arts series.

Reverend L Jerome Fowler, a family descendent, and Leigh Ryan, University of Maryland Writing Center Director, spoke about Henry Vinton Plummer’s life in Maryland before becoming a chaplain. The title of their talk, ”Under His Voice: The Life and Legacy of Chaplain Henry Vinton Plummer,” comes from a joyful exclamation by his mother, Emily, upon hearing his first sermon: “My cup runneth over! To think that my son has been elevated to the pulpit and I have sat under his voice today.”

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Adam Plummer’s diary.

Born a slave in Lanham in 1844, Henry Vinton Plummer lived in Prince George’s, Montgomery, and Howard counties and the Federal City, then escaped and served in the US Navy. When the Civil War ended, he returned home and journeyed to New Orleans to find his older sister, who had been sold south. He married, attended Wayland Seminary, and worked in the District of Columbia Post Office. He pastored several churches and founded the Bladensburg Burying Society. Like many, Henry valued family, faith, and community, but what set him apart was his activism. Within his church and community, what others saw as issues that “someone” ought to do something about, Henry saw as opportunities to act and he did.

President Chester Arthur appointed Plummer as chaplain in the 9th (Horse) Cavalry in 1884. A letter of recommendation came from Frederick Douglass. Plummer served until his court-martial and dishonorable discharge ten years later for “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.” The story disappeared from family lore, but resurfaced after one hundred years, which lead to the formation of the Committee to Clear Chaplain Plummer. They petitioned the successful change of his “dishonorable” discharge to “honorable” in 2005.

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Henry Vinton Plummer.

We have Plummer’s story because his enslaved father, Adam Francis Plummer, secretly learned to read and write and kept a diary. Lost for many years, that diary was located in 2003 and donated to the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum. Plummer’s youngest sister, Nellie, also self published a memoir, Out of the Depths, or The Triumph of the Cross.

Along with archival documents, these records give us stories of toddler Henry helping his grandmother, of his mother’s hiding him in a corn shock to prevent a sale to a cruel master, and of his teenage attempts to grab a few more minutes of sleep. We also know details of his escape from slavery, his train trip to New Orleans seeking sister Miranda, and of his many local community activities.

Last year, the Henry Vinton Plummer chapter of the 9th (Horse) Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers formed in Maryland to honor Plummer.

2 Comments on "A local slave story almost forgotten"

  1. Sherrell G. | February 6, 2016 at 1:08 pm |

    “We have Plummer’s story because his enslaved father, Adam Francis Plummer, secretly LEANED to read and write and kept a diary.” Unfortunate that no one LEARNED to proof read…

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