Slave to Free: My Family's History in Montgomery County, MD

Posted on: February 23rd, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 3 Comments

Written by Jessica Pumphrey

Imagine growing up in the same town where your ancestors once worked as slaves. Then imagine visiting the plantation house, now in ruins, where your ancestors worked and wondering if they ever imagined that one day their family would expand into one of the most accomplished and respected African American families in North America. All while staying in touch with each other and acknowledging the rich history that brought us to this place.


The Howard-Holland reunion of 1992. (Photo: Sandy Spring Museum)

As the 9th generation of the Howard-Holland family in Montgomery County, Maryland, I am honored to know where I came from and the importance of preserving not just my oral history, but also the built history that has been a part of my upbringing from the very beginning.

I grew up in Ashton, Maryland, a small town in the same county where my family’s history was traced back to the early 1800s. We are descendents of Jack and Polly Howard, slaves that worked on the plantations of the Gaithers, Howse, and Griffith families in Montgomery County. Jack and Polly had eight children, one of which - Eliza Howard - is my direct ancestor. The stories about Eliza were that she was a "hard woman" - someone who you didn’t ever want to cross. I’ll never forget the first time I saw her photograph. Let’s just say that from the looks of things, there were no exaggerations.

Of Polly and Jack Howard’s eight children, two brothers decided to escape slavery by following the North Star on the Underground Railroad to Ontario, Canada, where they changed their last name from Howard to Holland. Over the next 100 years, the Howard-Holland family expanded across North America, challenging injustice and discrimination by buying their own freedom, petitioning the local government to build African American schools, making their mark in the Harlem Renaissance, and even founding one of America’s great black newspapers, the Afro-American.

For over 20 years, the descendants of Jack and Polly’s eight children have come together bi-annually for reunions that rotate from Montgomery County to Ontario.  During our reunions, we are fortunate enough to visit museums that mention our history, as well as visit sites like the historic Howard Chapel Cemetery in Montgomery County, which was built by my ancestor John Henry Howard in 1889.

As a preservationist, I know the power of saving historic places as a way to bring people together - and not just families, but communities as a whole. Growing up walking the grounds of old plantation houses, visiting museums that included my family history, and even just talking to relatives who have researched these long-ago people and places, I've been inspired to share my history with friends and bring them with me to experience it.

Jessica Pumphrey is the public affairs coordinator at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

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The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

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3 Responses

  1. Joseph McGill

    February 24, 2012

    Jessica, Your words are inspiring. You write of a history that is challenging to interpret. I, like you, know the importance of saving the places that can help tell those stories. We must compare notes.

  2. Kathleen Brandt

    February 24, 2012

    Jessica,
    What a deep rich history! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Clare Lise Kelly

    February 24, 2012

    It’s wonderful how your family has stayed connected despite the distance and passing of time. Though the house and church were too far gone to save, yet both the Howard Family Cemetery and the Howard Chapel Cemetery are designated historic sites on Montgomery County’s Master Plan for HIstoric Preservation. The book, Places from the Past, features the Howard family story in a discussion of these historic sites (see pp 118 & 122).
    http://www.montgomeryplanning.org/historic/places_from_the_past/
    Thank you so much for sharing your inspirational story!
    -Clare Lise Kelly, Historic Preservation Planner, Montgomery County Planning Dept