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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

In Their Own Words: The Diary of Adam Francis Plummer

Emily Saunders Plummer
Diaries are significant documents that help us to understand the past.  They are written in the first person voice and detail the everyday lives of their authors and about issues and things of importance to the author.  Diaries reveal the accomplishments, struggles, values, beliefs, and aspirations of their authors.  They are often also used as record-keeping instruments which reveal information about the livelihoods of the authors.  In essence, a diary is a personal account that, through the technology of writing, permits others who share the communicative medium the ability to peer into the past through the eyes of the author, granting insight into the present and future.

In the collections of the Anacostia Community Museum there is a diary of great historical significance.  The diary belongs to the Plummer family of Maryland.  It was begun by Adam Francis Plummer, born into slavery in 1819 on the Goodwood Plantation of George Calvert, located in contemporary Prince George’s County, Maryland.  Having learned to read from John Bowser, a former slave, he started the diary in 1841 after his marriage to Emily Saunders held at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. The marriage was atypical for slaves as it was considered legal and they were granted a marriage license.  The couple bore eighteen children one of whom was Nellie Arnold Plummer, who continued use of the diary after the death of Adam Francis Plummer in 1905.  She used the diary to continue the documentation of her family history.

The diary provides a window into African American society during the 19th and 20th centuries.  It reveals the strength, character, composition, and cohesion of a black family during slavery and into Jim Crow.  The diary is a living document that aids the family and others in the construction of identity as the history of the family and associated narratives of struggle and subsistence are detailed.

Most of the entries in the Diary of Adam Francis Plummer are of dates of events, such as births and deaths, receipts, correspondence, or inventories, like Adam's possessions. The inventories often include the prices he paid for the items listed. These entries help us understand the conditions in which the authors lived and tell us about the people and things they valued.

The entries written by Nellie Arnold Plummer include many narrative entries about Adam Francis Plummer and other relatives as she developed the early content for a book of her family history.  Her entries also include a variety of notes.  Many of the entries include personal observations and emotive responses to events.  In aggregate, her entries reveal the continued use of the Diary to document her life and the lives of her relatives.  That it was done in the same document used by Adam Francis Plummer is both a blessing and a challenge as it is often difficult to distinguish between the writings of Nellie and Adam due to age of document and that fact that Nellie often literally wrote over earlier material or in the least in close proximity. 

The family donated the diary to the Anacostia Community Museum in an effort to preserve it for future generations and to increase the accessibility of it so as to educate the public about American history as experienced by the Plummer Family.  You may read the diary here.

To learn about the conservation of the Plummer diary click here.

Anthony Angelo Gualtieri
Museum Specialist
Anacostia Community Museum

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