How enslaved families in 1700s Prince George’s County used the legal system to gain freedom

A rock star of local theater will help tell the stories of enslaved people in Prince George’s County, Maryland, who successfully filed lawsuits in the 1700s that led to their freedom.

“It’s a huge part of American history that many people do not know about,” playwright Psalmayene 24 said Thursday during an event when the announcement was made. “I certainly did not know about the narratives before getting approached to adapt this book.”

The as-yet unnamed play will be based on the book “A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War” by historian William G. Thomas III. It tells the stories of families and places of the enslaved in Prince George’s County dating back to the late 1700s.

Hundreds of suits filed between 1787 and 1861 against slaveholders challenged the legitimacy of slavery in American law.

Psalmayene 24 said the power and scope of the Prince Georgians’ successful lawsuits are akin to the importance of the Underground Railroad.

“As important as that movement was and that sort of route to freedom was — these freedom suits were also a route that many people in Prince George’s County, enslaved people filed these freedom suits to really seize and gain their freedom.”

How knowing the past can lead to a more just and equitable present: Historian William G. Thomas III explains

Psalmayene 24’s commission is part of “Freedom Stories,” a two-year initiative sponsored by a coalition of organizations and agencies that includes the Prince George’s County Historical Society, Prince George’s County Memorial Library System, the Prince George’s County Office of Human Rights, Joe’s Movement Emporium and the Prince George’s Community College Center for Performing Arts.

Initiative-sponsored events still being planned will include historical, legal and educational anti-racist and social justice programs.

Before the play’s launch, the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System and Freedom Stories coalition will host monthly events from November 2021 to July 2022. The discussions will explore individual chapters in the book and how the stories cover local history and are reflected in contemporary life in Prince George’s County.

On Oct. 27 at 6:30 p.m. at the Bowie Branch Library, co-director of the film “Unmarked” Chris Haley will discuss the reclaiming and honoring of burial sites of enslaved people in the mid-Atlantic region.

You can register for the event on the Prince George’s County library system’s website.

From left, Brooke Kidd is the founder and executive director of World Arts Focus Inc. and its performing arts center, Joe’s Movement Emporium; author William G. Thomas III, playwright Psalmayene 24 and playwright/poet/actor/author/educator Marcia E. Cole. (WTOP/Kristi King)
Playwright Psalmayene 24 has been selected to interpret “A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War” to be performed at Joe’s Movement Emporium. (WTOP/Kristi King)

Psalmayene 24 is an alumnus of Howard University. He has lived in the D.C. area since the early 1990s and calls it his adopted hometown.

“So I actually do feel like somewhat of a native at this point, and I feel connected to the stories,” he said.

Native Washingtonian playwright and poet Marcia E. Cole will work with Psalmayene 24 in a support capacity.

“And I’m happy to do so, to assist in the research aspect to help dive deep into the subject,” Cole said. “As a poet I use my poetry to get behind statistics and find the human story that transcends time.”

The “Freedom Stories” inspired play will take the stage sometime in 2022  at Joe’s Movement Emporium in Mount Rainier, Maryland.

Joe’s Movement Emporium is a cultural arts hub that acts as a catalyst for creativity and economic opportunity, according to its website.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up