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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Grace Wisher: The African American Girl Who Helped Make The Star-Spangled Banner

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Grace Wisher was an African American girl who worked at a flag-making factory in Baltimore, Maryland in 1813.

Little did she know that her work would contribute to the creation of one of America’s most beloved symbols: the Star-Spangled Banner.

The Star-Spangled Banner is one of the most iconic symbols of American patriotism, but the story of its creation goes beyond just one person.

It is a story of collaboration and dedication, of hard work and sacrifice, and it includes the contributions of Grace Wisher, a free African American girl who played a crucial role in making the flag.

At the age of 13, Grace was an apprentice in the household of Mary Pickersgill, who owned a flag-making business.

Pickersgill was commissioned by the United States government to create a massive flag for Fort McHenry in Baltimore.

The flag was to be used as a symbol of resistance against the British during the War of 1812.

In 1813, during the War of 1812, the United States needed a flag that would represent their young nation and its fight for independence.

Mary Pickersgill, a skilled flag maker from Baltimore, was commissioned to create a flag that was so large it could be seen from a great distance.

It was to be flown over Fort McHenry, where American soldiers were fighting off a British attack.

But Mary didn’t work alone. She had a team of women, including her daughter and Grace Wisher, who was serving as an apprentice in her shop.

Grace’s role in the creation of the Star-Spangled Banner flag has only recently come to light, and it is a story that deserves to be told.

This article will explore the life of Grace Wisher, her apprenticeship with Mary Pickersgill, and her contributions to the creation of the flag that has become an enduring symbol of American freedom.

Making of the flag

To complete the flag, Pickersgill needed the help of a few skilled workers.

Grace Wisher, along with her mother and seven other women, were hired to sew the flag together.

Grace’s job was to add the finishing touches to the flag by sewing the stars onto the blue background.

It’s important to note that during this time, African Americans were not valued as citizens and were often subjected to discrimination and mistreatment.

Despite this, Grace and the other women worked diligently on the flag, taking great care to make sure that every detail was perfect.

The flag that Grace helped create was massive, measuring 30 feet by 42 feet.

It had 15 stars and 15 stripes, representing the 15 states in the Union at that time.

The flag was a symbol of hope and freedom for the Americans who were fighting for their independence against the British.

 

On September 13, 1814, the British launched an attack on Fort McHenry.

Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer who was aboard a ship in the harbor, watched as the battle unfolded.

In the early morning hours, he saw the American flag still waving above the fort, signaling that the Americans had won the battle.

Inspired by what he had seen, Key wrote a poem called “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” which later became known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The poem was set to music and became the official national anthem of the United States in 1931.

For many years, the contribution of Grace Wisher and the other women who worked on the flag was overlooked.

It wasn’t until the late 20th century that historians began to recognize the important role that they played in creating the iconic symbol of American freedom.

Today, Grace Wisher is celebrated as a hero and a symbol of perseverance and determination.

Her work on the Star-Spangled Banner serves as a reminder that everyone, regardless of their background, can make a valuable contribution to their community and their country.

African American as apprentice

Grace Wisher, an African American girl, was bound as an apprentice in 1809 when she was only about 13 years old.

Her mother, Jenny Wisher, who was a free African American, had indentured her daughter, possibly to offer her a better future.

During that time, there were no formal schools for African American children, and economic opportunities for free African American women were extremely limited.

As a result, an apprenticeship was an excellent way for Grace to learn a trade and acquire skills that could help her secure employment in the future.

Child apprenticeship was relatively uncommon among the African American population in Baltimore during that period.

Most apprentices were orphans or impoverished children who were bound involuntarily by court order.

However, Maryland law also allowed for children of “lazy, indolent, and worthless” free African Americans to be bound out involuntarily.

In contrast, free African American parents, like Grace’s mother, voluntarily bound out their children.

The prospect of binding out a child to a stranger was not without risks, as maltreatment and the risk of being kidnapped and sold into slavery were genuine concerns.

The number of girl apprentices was even smaller than that of boys.

Grace’s apprenticeship, therefore, was an exceptional opportunity that allowed her to learn skills that were in high demand at the time.

Sewing, for instance, was a valuable skill that provided the possibility of self-employment and was sought after by employers looking for domestic help.

It is unclear if there was any prior relationship between Jenny Wisher and Mary Pickersgill, the woman to whom Grace was bound.

However, it is possible that they knew each other and that trust was not an issue.

Two-thirds of the African American residents in Mary’s neighborhood were free, and they may have lived in the same area.

Additionally, one of the most important qualifications that employers looked for in an apprentice was “character,” so Mary may have chosen Grace based on personal knowledge.

In conclusion, Grace Wisher’s story sheds light on the realities of African American life in the early 19th century, specifically with regard to opportunities for women and children.

Despite facing significant economic and social challenges, Grace’s apprenticeship allowed her to acquire valuable skills that would later benefit her.

Furthermore, it provides insight into the practice of apprenticeship and the challenges involved in placing children in a trade or with an employer.

Grace’s story is a reminder of the importance of historical research in uncovering the overlooked contributions and stories of marginalized individuals.

 

Grace Wisher was a free African American girl who was indentured as an apprentice in 1809 by her mother, Jenny Wisher. The aim was to provide her daughter with a better future as opportunities for free African American women in Baltimore at that time were limited. The apprenticeship contract was signed by Mary Pickersgill, a flag-maker, who promised to provide Grace with food, clothing, and shelter, and to teach her the skills of housework and plain sewing. Mary also paid Jenny $12 at the beginning and end of the contract, and in exchange, Grace promised to faithfully serve and obey Mary for six years.

 

The law required that apprentices receive at least a rudimentary education during their indenture, but this provision was often ignored when it came to African American children. In contrast, Mary promised to provide her white apprentice with reading and writing instruction. Grace’s indenture contract did not include such a requirement. Despite this, Grace likely participated in sewing activities, including the creation of the Star-Spangled Banner flag in 1813, as she had been with the Pickersgill family for five years at that point. She would have also performed household chores alongside the one enslaved person in the household, which was common for white families of modest means in Baltimore at the time.

 

Living and working in a mixed household, Grace had to navigate two different worlds and accept the limitations on her freedom. She would have straddled the social hierarchy of the household while sharing chores and quarters with the enslaved woman. Maryland law required indenture contracts to end at the age of majority, which was sixteen, and so Grace likely left the Pickersgill household in 1815. What happened to Grace after her indenture is unknown, but her contribution to the creation of the Star-Spangled Banner flag deserves recognition.

Grace Wisher’s story is a reminder of the role that free and enslaved African Americans played in the history of the United States, including the creation of one of its most iconic symbols.

Grace’s apprenticeship provided her with an opportunity to learn a trade and gain skills that would be useful for the rest of her life.

Her contribution to the creation of the flag serves as a testament to the talent and skill of African American women in a time when their value was often overlooked.

We should continue to highlight the stories of individuals like Grace Wisher to ensure that their contributions are not forgotten.

Her story is also an inspiring example of how one person’s hard work and dedication can contribute to the creation of a national symbol.

Her work on the Star-Spangled Banner is a testament to the fact that every individual, regardless of their race or social status, has the potential to make a difference in the world.

We should celebrate the contributions of Grace Wisher and others like her who have worked tirelessly to create a better future for themselves and their communities.

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