Library volunteer builds painstaking history of slavery

David Nathanson, 66, volunteers in the Maryland Room at C. Burr Artz Public Library. (Frederick News-Post/Adam Fried)

David Nathanson is somewhere in 1861.

It’s taken him four years to get there.

Nathanson sits in front of a microfilm machine at the Maryland Room in the C. Burr Artz Public Library in downtown Frederick. He scrolls through local newspapers, meticulously reading tiny print that is more than 150 years old to pick out text that relates to slavery in the area, including old advertisements.

He started with 1802.

“When I’m doing this, I’m also picking up information on what’s happening in the United States,” Nathanson said.

While scrolling, he reads about the buildup to the Civil War. South Carolina has just seceded from the Union.

He has found ads for Bradley Johnson’s law firm. Johnson, a native of Frederick, later became a Confederate general in the Civil War. His house downtown was confiscated by the federal government during the war.

“That’s what makes this so interesting, seeing the history before your very eyes,” Nathanson said.

In the years since Nathanson started, he has picked out more than 2,000 entries that he is building into a database using Microsoft Access. He has noticed that, as the years progress, he finds less and less to build on.

Nathanson, a volunteer at the Maryland Room, seems the perfect fit for this project. He also devotes time at the Catoctin Center, a regional resource for historical and cultural research. He retired in 2007 as a librarian for the National Park Service at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., where he worked for 32 years. He is originally from Boston. When not volunteering, he enjoys spending time with his five grandchildren, who range from 7 months to 7 years old.

Turning to the database, Nathanson picks out ads he has retyped in which slave owners seek their lost charges. In one ad, a $15 reward is offered for turning over a slave named Jack. In an ad from an 1863 edition of the Maryland Union, which leaned sympathetic to the Confederacy, someone named George Zimmerman offered $0.06 for the return of an indentured servant named John.

“It tells me that life for slaves, for African-Americans at that time, was pretty chancy,” Nathanson said. “For example … if they were convicted of a crime, they could be sold back into slavery, even if they were free, for a period of time.”

Nathanson wants the database to become a source for people doing genealogical research.

Manager Mary Mannix said she hopes to have the database available soon on the Maryland Room’s public computers and to have it accessible via the room’s website in six months to a year.

Mannix said people like Nathanson help the Maryland Room to expand its resources for the community. His dedication has been phenomenal, she said.

“It allows us to track people who are invisible to history.”

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