Rezin Williams


Sept. 27, 1937



References: Baltimore Morning Sun, December 10, 1928.

Registration Books of Board of Election Supervisors

Baltimore Court House.

Personal interviews with "Parson" Rezin Williams,

on Thursday afternoon, September 18 and 24, 1937,

at his home, 2610 Pierpont Street, Mount Winans,

Baltimore, Md.

Maryland Historical Magazine, Vol 1 (1906), p. 56.

Buchholz: Governors of Maryland--pp. 57-63, 192-167.

(P.L.G. 28 B 92.)

"Parson" Williams----

Oldest living Negro Civil War veteran; now 116 years old.

Oldest registered voter in Maryland and said to be the oldest

"freeman" in the United States.

Said to be oldest member of Negro family in America with sister

and brother still living, more than a century old.

Father worked for George Washington.

In 1864 when the State Constitution abolished slavery and freed about

83,000 Negro slaves in Maryland, there was one, "Parson" Rezin Williams,

already a freeman. He is now living at the age of 116 years, in

Baltimore City, Maryland, credited with being the oldest of his race in

the United States who served in the Civil War.

He was born March 11, 1822, at "Fairview", near Bowie, Prince Georges

County, Maryland--a plantation of 1000 acres, then belonging to Governor

Oden Bowie's father. "Parson" Williams' father, Rezin Williams, a

freeman, was born at "Mattaponi", near Nottingham, Prince Georges

County, the estate of Robert Bowie of Revolutionary War fame, friend of

Washington and twice Governor of Maryland. The elder Rezin Williams

served the father of our country as a hostler at Mount Vernon, where he

worked on Washington's plantation during the stormy days of the


There is perhaps nowhere to be found a more picturesque and interesting

character of the colored race than "Parson" Williams, who, besides

serving as a colored bishop of the Union American Methodist Church

(colored) for more than a half century, is the composer of Negro

spirituals which were popular during their day. He attended President

Lincoln's inauguration and subsequently every Republican and Democratic

presidential inauguration, although he himself is a Republican. Lincoln,

according to Williams, shook hands with him in Washington.

One of Williams' sons, of a family of fourteen children, was named after

George Washington, and another after Abraham Lincoln. The son, George

Washington Williams, died in 1912 at the age of seventy-three years.

"Parson" Williams, serving the Union forces as a teamster, hauled

munitions and supplies for General Grant's army, at Gettysburg. On trips

to the rear, he conveyed wounded soldiers from the line of fire. He also

served under General McClellan and General Hooker.

Although now confined to his home with infirmities of age, he posesses

all his faculties and has a good memory of events since his boyhood

days. Due to the fact that his grandmother was an Indian the daughter of

an Indian chieftan, alleged to be buried in a vault in Baltimore County,

Williams was a freeman like his father and hired himself out.

Williams claims that his father, when a boy, accompanied Robert Bowie,

for whom he was working, to Mount Vernon, where he first met George

Washington. He said that General Washington once became very angry at

his father because he struck an unruly horse, exclaiming: "The brute has

more sense than some slaves. Cease striking the animal."

Robert Bowie, the third son of Capt. William and Margaret (Sprigg)

Bowie, was born at "Mattaponi", near Nottingham, March 1750. As a

captain of a company of militia organized at Nottingham, he accompanied

the Maryland forces when they joined Washington in his early campaign

near New York. He and Washington became friends. In 1791, when Captain

William Bowie died, his son Robert inherited "Mattaponi". He was the

first Democratic governor to be elected, one of the presidential

electors for Madison, and a director of the first bank established at


Williams recalls hearing his father say that when Washington died,

December 14, 1799, many paid reverence by wearing mourning scarfs and


He recalls many interesting incidents during slavery days. He said that

slaves could not buy or sell anything except with the permission of

their master. If a slave was caught ten miles from his master's home,

and had no signed permit, he was arrested as a runaway and harshly


There was a standing reward for the capture of a runaway. The Indians

who caught a runaway slave received a "match coat." The master gave the

slave usually ten to ninety-nine lashes for running off. What slaves

feared most was what they called the "nine ninety-nine" or 99 lashes

with a rawhide whip, and sometimes they were unmercifully flogged until

unconcious. Some cruel masters believed Negroes had no souls. The slaves

at Bowie, however, declared "Parson" Williams, were pretty well treated

and usually respected the overseers. He said that the slaves at Bowie

mostly lived in cabins made of slabs running up and down and crudely

furnished. Working time was from sunrise until sunset. The slaves had no

money to spend and few masters allowed them to indulge in a religious

meeting or even learn about the Bible.

Slaves received medical attention from a physician if they were

seriously ill. When a death occured, a rough box would be made of heavy

slabs and the dead Negro buried the same day on the plantation burying

lot with a brief ceremony, if any. The grieving darkeys, relatives,

after he was "eased" in the ground, would sing a few spirituals and

return to their cabins.

Familiar old spirituals were composed by "Parson" Williams, including

Roll De Stones Away, You'll Rise in De Skies, and Ezekiel, He'se

Comin Home.

Following is one of Williams' spirituals:

When dat are ole chariot comes,

I'm gwine to lebe you:

I'm bound for de promised land

I'm gwine to lebe you.

I'm sorry I'm gwine to lebe you,

Farewell, oh farewell

But I'll meet you in de mornin

Farewell, oh farewell.

Still another favorite of "Parson" Williams, which he composed on Col.

Bowie's plantation just before the Civil War, a sort of rallying song

expressing what Canada meant to the slaves at that time, runs thus:

I'm now embarked for yonder shore

There a man's a man by law;

The iron horse will bear me o'er

To shake de lion's paw.

Oh, righteous Father, will thou not pity me

And aid me on to Canada, where all the slaves are free.

Oh, I heard Queen Victoria say

That if we would forsake our native land of slavery,

And come across de lake

That she was standin' on de shore

Wid arms extended wide,

To give us all a peaceful home

Beyond de rollin' tide.

Interesting reminiscences are recalled by "Parson" Williams of his early

life. He said that he still remembers when Mr. Oden Bowie (later

governor) left with the army of invasion of Mexico (1846-1848), and of

his being brought home ill after several years was nursed back to health

at "Fairview". Governor Bowie died on his plantation in 1894 and is

buried in the family burying ground there.

He was the first president of the Maryland Jockey Club. Governor Bowie

raised a long string of famous race horses that became known throughout

the country. From the "Fairview" stables went such celebrated horses as

Dickens, Catespy, Crickmore, Commensation, Creknob, who carried the

Bowie colors to the front on many well-contested race courses. After

Governor Bowie's death, the estate became the property of his youngest

son, W. Booth Bowie.

"Fairview" is located in the upper part of what was called the "Forest"

of Prince Georges County, a few miles southwest of Collington Station.

It is a fine type of old Colonial mansion built of brick, the place

having been in the posession of the family for some time previous.

"Fairview" is one of the oldest and finest homes in Maryland. The

mansion contains a wide hall and is a typical Southern home.

Baruch Duckett married Kitty Bean, a granddaughter of John Bowie, Sr.,

the first of his name to come to Prince Georges County. They had but one

daughter, whose name was Kitty Bean Duckett, and she married in 1800

William Bowie of Walter. Baruch Duckett outlived his wife and died in

1810. He devised "Fairview" to his son-in-law and the latter's children,

and it ultimately became the property of his grandson, afterward known

as Col. William B.[TR.?] Bowie, who made it his home until 1880, when he

gave it to his eldest son, Oden, who in 1868 became Governor of

Maryland. Governor Bowie was always identified with the Democratic


"Parson" Williams' wife, Amelia Addison Williams died August 9, 1928, at

the age of 94 years. The aged negro is the father of 14 children, one

still living,--Mrs. Amelia Besley, 67 years old, 2010 Pierpont Street,

Mount Winans, Baltimore, Maryland. His brother, Marcellus Williams, and

a single sister, Amelia Williams, both living, reside on Rubio street,

Philidelphia, Pa. According to "Parson" Williams, they are both more

than a century old and are in fairly good health. Besides his children

and a brother and a sister, Williams has several grandchildren,

great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren living.

President Lincoln, Williams says, was looked upon by many slaves as a

messenger from heaven. Of course, many slave masters were kind and

considerate, but to most slaves they were just a driver and the slaves

were work horses for them. Only once during his lifetime does Williams

recall tasting whisky, when his cousin bought a pint. It cost three

cents in those days. He said his mother used to make beer out of

persimmons and cornhusks, but they don't make it any more, so he doesn't

even drink beer now. He would much rather have a good cigar. He has

since a boy, smoked a pipe.

By special permission of plantation owners in Prince Georges, St. Marys,

Baltimore and other counties in Maryland, he was often permitted to

visit the darkeys and conduct a religious meeting in their cabins. He

usually wore a long-tailed black "Kentucky" suit with baggy trousers and

sported a cane.

Usually when servants or slaves in those days found themselves happy and

contented, it was because they were born under a lucky star. As for

eating, they seldom got chicken, mostly they ate red herring and

molasses--they called black strap molasses. They were allowed a herring

a day as part of their food. Slaves as a rule preferred possums to

rabbits. Some liked fish best. Williams' favorite food was cornpone and

fried liver.

"Once before de wah, I was ridin Lazy, my donkey, a few miles from de

boss' place at Fairview, when along came a dozen or more patrollers. Dey

questioned me and decided I was a runaway slave and dey wuz gwine to

give me a coat of tar and feathers when de boss rode up and ordered my

release. He told dem dreaded white patrollers dat I was a freeman and a


When the slaves were made free, some of the overseers tooted horns,

calling the blacks from their toil in the fields. They were told they

need no longer work for their masters unless they so desired. Most of

the darkeys quit "den and dar" and made a quick departure to other

parts, but some remained and to this day their descendants are still to

be found working on the original plantations, but of course for pay.

Describing the clothing worn in summer time by the slaves, he said they

mostly went barefooted. The men and boys wore homespun, three-quarter

striped pants and sometimes a large funnel-shaped straw hat. Some wore

only a shirt as a covering for their body.

"In winter oxhide shoes were worn, much too large, and the soles

contained several layers of paper. We called them 'program' shoes,

because the paper used for stuffing, consisted of discarded programs. We

gathered herbs from which we made medicine, snake root and sassafras

bark being a great remedy for many ailments."

Williams, though himself not a slave by virtue of the fact that his

grandmother was an Indian, was considered a good judge of healthy

slaves, those who would prove profitable to their owners, so he often

accompanied slave purchasers to the Baltimore slave markets.

He told of having been taken by a certain slave master to the Baltimore

wharf, boarded a boat and after the slave dealer and the captain

negotiated a deal, he, Williams, not realizing that he was being used as

a decoy, led a group of some thirty or forty blacks, men, women and

children, through a dark and dirty tunnel for a distance of several

blocks to a slave market pen, where they were placed on the auction


He was told to sort of pacify the black women who set up a wail when

they were separated from their husbands and children. It was a pitiful

sight to see them, half naked, some whipped into submission, cast into

slave pens surrounded by iron bars. A good healthy negro man from 18 to

30 would bring from $200 to $800. Women would bring about half the price

of the men. Often when the women parted with their children and loved

ones, they would never see them again.

Such conditions as existed in the Baltimore slave markets, which were

considered the most important in the country, and the subsequent ill

treatment of the unfortunates, hastened the war between the states.

The increasing numbers of free negroes also had much to do with causing

the civil war. The South was finding black slavery a sort of white

elephant. Everywhere the question was what to do with the freeman.

Nobody wanted them. Some states declared they were a public nuisance.

"Uncle Rezin", by which name some called him, since slavery days, was,

besides being engaged in preaching the Gospel, journeying from one town

to another, where he has performed hundreds of marriages among his race,

baptised thousands, performed numerous christenings and probably

preached more sermons than any Negro now living. He preached his last

sermon two years ago. He says his life's work is now through and he is

crossing over the River Jordan and will soon be on the other side. Since

the Civil War he has made extra money for his support during depression

times by doing odd jobs of whitewashing, serving as a porter or janitor,

cutting wood, hauling and running errands, also serving as a teamster,

picking berries and working as a laborer. He has had several miraculous

escapes from death during his long life. Twice during the past quarter

of a century his home at Mount Winans has been destroyed by fire, when

firemen rescued him in the nick of time, and some years ago, when he was

suddenly awakened during a severe windstorm, his house was unroofed and

blew down. When workmen were clearing away the debris in search for

"Uncle" Rezin, some hours later, a voice was heard coming from a large

barrel in the cellar. It was from Williams, who somehow managed to crawl

in the barrel during the storm, and called out: "De Lord hab sabed me.

You all haul me out of here, but I'se all right." Scabo, his pet dog,

was killed by the falling debris during the storm. Firemen at Westport

state that three years ago, when fire damaged "Uncle" Rezin's home, the

aged negro preacher refused to be rescued, and walked out of the

building through stifling smoke, as though nothing had happened. When

veterans of a great war have been mowed down by the scythe of Father

Time until their numbers are few, an added public interest attaches to

them. Baltimore septuagenarians remember the honor paid to the last

surviving "Old Defenders", who faced the British troops at North Point

in 1814, and now the few veterans of the War of Secession, whether they

wore the blue or the gray, receive similar attention. A far different

class, one peculiarly associated with the strife between the North and

the South, are approaching the point of fading out from the life of

today--the old slaves, and original old freemen. "Parson" Williams tops

the list of them all.

Reverend Williams Rf Parker facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail