Two hundred years ago, an African American girl made history—literally. She was an indentured servant named Grace Wisher in the household of Mary Pickersgill. Helen Yuen and Ms. Asantewa Boakyewa of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum share her story.
Mary Pickersgill is often credited with sewing the Star-Spangled Banner which flew over Fort McHenry in Maryland and inspired Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem. Less known is that Grace Wisher, an African American girl at just 13 years old, also helped make the flag. It’s another testament to the deeply rooted, yet oft unmentioned, contributions of African Americans to the very core of this country.
Indenture was a waning practice in early 19th century Baltimore, although Maryland law did allow for courts to take away children of African Americans who were considered “lazy, indolent, and worthless free negroes” to bind the youngsters into apprenticeship. Orphans usually met a similar fate.
The size of the Star-Spangled Banner and its six-week timeline for completion would have necessitated many people working on the flag, including Mary Pickersgill’s three nieces and Grace Wisher. The household also had an enslaved person, whose name we do not know.
The home where Pickersgill and Wisher lived is now a museum called the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House. It holds a 1962 painting by famed Baltimore artist Robert McGill Mackall. The portrait features the Pickersgill household and the three men who commissioned the garrison and storm flags for Fort McHenry: Commodore Joshua Barney, General John Stricker, and Colonel George Armistead. As a tribute to Wisher, the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House drew in a ghost figure into the painting that represents the young girl. Due to our uncertainty of what she looked like, the placeholder is a traced line, but the recognition is tangible.