When two Brummies met over dinner for the first time in America, thousands of miles away from home, they had a lot to talk about.
Number one on the list was – why did one of them own slaves?
The year was 1774 and Harry Dorsey Gough had done well for himself in Baltimore, Maryland. He had completed his manor house and named it after his ancestral home Perry Hall in Birmingham, where his family had moved from decades before.
He was coining it in – on the backs of slaves. He was one of the biggest slave owners in Maryland, enslaving more than 70 people.
Whilst he had boisterous parties, plenty of wine and gambled big on the horses, his wife Prudence started attending Methodist Church meetings and living a more pious life. Although Harry and his pals first went to meetings to ridicule the new religion, he ended up being converted.
He built a chapel on the side of Perry Hall and fitted the first bell ever to adorn a Methodist church in America, every day it would ring and he, Prudence and his slave families would worship.
The founder of the American Methodist Church, which now has over 60 million members, was Francis Asbury – who had grown up two miles away from Perry Hall in Birmingham, England.
He criss-crossed the New World on his horse trying to convert everyone he met, and was delighted with the chance to meet someone from the same part of the world as him. Not one to be impressed by worldly possessions and grandeur he even allowed himself to compliment Perry Hall Mansion.
He said: ‘Perry Hall was the largest house I had ever seen, and all its arrangements within and without, were tasteful and elegant.
‘Yet simplicity and utility seemed to be stamped upon the whole. The garden, orchards, and everything else, were delightful indeed, and looked to me like an earthly paradise.
‘But what pleased me better than anything else, I found a neat chapel next to the house and a small cupola and bell, which could be heard all over the farm.’
What did not delight him, however, was Harry’s slave ownership. Harry’s conversion had been accelerated when he had seen slaves convert to Methodism and give thanks to the Lord for basically having nothing.
He was not impressed enough to free his slaves though. They were making him money on his farmland.
Again and again Francis raised the issue of slaves, but still they remained anything but free.
The Goughs were there when Francis Asbury was ordained a bishop of the church. It would be nearly 100 years and one civil war later until slavery was abolished for good in America, but in northern states like Maryland slaves were being made free men in the 1790s.
But not Harry Gough’s slaves. They continued being forced to work for free, were prevented from leaving the county and unable to make decisions about their lives that we take for granted now.
Prudence, whom the bishop would later describe ‘like a daughter’, and Francis kept on trying to convince Harry to set them free.
President of Perry Hall Mansion, Inc Jeffrey Smith, who wrote the official history of the mansion, told Metro.co.uk: ‘It would be a nice end to the story if Harry had relented and freed his slaves.
‘However, all those conversations were not in vain, because he freed his slaves in his will – so when he died in 1808, the slaves were freed and their children went on to live free lives, something that Southern slaves could only dream of for decades.
‘Francis Asbury went on to be one of the most important missionaries in American history. Methodism is one of our country’s biggest religions and counts several presidents amongst their number, including both Bushes.’
He added: ‘Gough’s decision to free his slaves was part of a larger movement promoted by Asbury and a host of other Methodist preachers that led to freedom for African-Americans throughout the Mid-Atlantic states.’
Over 2,000 people attended Harry’s funeral in 1808 and Bishop Asbury presided over the ceremony.
He said: ‘Harry Dorsey Gough was a man much respected and beloved. His charities were as numerous as proper objects to a Christian is likely to make them.’
And at the end of the service, his slaves went home free men and women.
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