Grace Wisher, age 13, was an indentured servant in the home of flag maker Mary Pickersgill of Baltimore. Pickersgill, who had taken over the business her mother started, was well known and highly regarded. The Pickersgill shop was responsible for making one of America’s most famous flags—the one that inspired The Star Spangled Banner.
A Flag for War
Numerous disagreements between the United States and Britain had led the U.S. to declare war on Britain. The British Navy, the mightiest in the world, began lining up outside Chesapeake Bay, threatening to halt shipping traffic into the port.
Major General George Armistead was the U.S. Army commander at Fort McHenry at the mouth of Baltimore harbor on the Chesapeake. He wanted to send a strong message that America was going to defend its harbors. One way to do this was to put up an oversized American flag above Fort McHenry.
Armistead knew just where to go for his flag.
Mary Pickersgill, Flag Maker
The request he made of Mary Pickersgill was for a garrison flag measuring 30 by 42 feet with 15 stars and 15 stripes (each star and stripe representing a state). It was a large flag, and he wanted it as soon as possible.
With these instructions, Pickersgill called in all the help she could. Mary was joined by her elderly mother, three nieces, and an African American indentured servant named Grace Wisher. There are some reports that a slave woman also helped.
The flag they delivered six weeks later is the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write The Star Spangled Banner. For the complete story of the making of the Star Spangled Banner, click here. (The flag has been restored by conservators at the Smithsonian, and it now hangs in the American History Museum in Washington, D.C.)
Mary Pickersgill became famous for having made that flag. The fact that she was aided by two African Americans has only come to light more recently. Though none of Pickersgill’s flag making team has ever had much focus, it would be very difficult to tell much of a story about either Grace Wisher or the slave woman. Documentation of the lives of African Americans has usually not been considered important.
What historians do known about Grace Wisher is this: Wisher was the daughter of a mother too poor to support her children. She placed Grace at age 10 in an apprenticeship with Pickersgill. In return for teaching Grace a trade, Pickersgill gained a servant for six years.
African Americans Contributed in Many Ways
Grace Wisher is far from alone in having been forgotten. In 2008 following the election of President Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted: “The Capitol was built by slaves.”
This sent journalists at Politifact scrambling to see what could be documented. While historians have been unable to detail much about the workers or who they were, what we do know now is that slaves helped build both the President’s House, as the White House was known, and the Capitol Building, and probably innumerable other buildings as well. To get the work done, the government pulled together all types of laborers, and in many cases, they paid slave owners for the use of their slaves.
In acknowledgment of their work, a plaque to these workers was unveiled in the Capitol Visitor Center in February of 2012. The plaque sits beside a sandstone block saved from the original building.
“This sandstone was originally part of the United States Capitol’s east front, constructed in 1824-1826. It was quarried by laborers, including enslaved African Americans, and commemorates their important role in building the Capitol.”
Grace Wisher and the enslaved people who helped build two of our most important buildings in Washington, D.C. should serve as a reminder to us all that America was built by many hands coming from many nations—and some of them were enslaved.
We will be unlikely to trace many of their names, understand their heritage or share their story with today’s Americans. The least we can do is acknowledge their importance in creating the country we honor today.
To read about one who managed to become an acknowledged leader in this very challenging era, see the story of Benjamin Banneker, a scientist, a publisher, and an African American who helped survey the land on which Washington, D.C. was laid out.