In 1996, Richard Miller and Isaac Prentice, members of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society’s (AAHGS) Prince George’s County, Maryland chapter, along with Prentice’s friend John Craig were the first to tell the story of Chaplain Henry Vinton Plummer’s 1894 dishonorable discharge from the US Army. The story came as a surprise to the Reverend L. Jerome Fowler, a Plummer descendent who often speaks about his family and its connection to the Riversdale Plantation in what is now Riverdale, Maryland in suburban Washington, DC.
Fowler did not know that his great-granduncle was the first African American chaplain in the US Regular Army and that there is a thick legal dossier documenting his military experience. As Reverend Fowler and others read the court martial transcript for the first time, they questioned the guilty verdict.
In 2001, AAHGS members Miller, Prentice, and Carolyn Corpening Rowe joined with politicians, educators, military men, and Plummer family members to petition for changing Plummer’s discharge from dishonorable to honorable. In 2005, more than one-hundred years beyond the statute of limitations, the Committee to Clear Chaplain Plummer achieved its goal.
Henry, the future Chaplain, was the oldest son of Adam Francis Plummer (1819–1905) and Emily Saunders Plummer (c.1815–1876). Adam was enslaved at Riversdale Plantation, owned by Lord Baltimore descendant George Calvert and his wife Rosalie Stier Calvert. Emily, toiled in bondage eight miles away at Three Sisters Plantation.
Adam worked for young Charles Benedict Calvert, who would eventually found the Maryland Agricultural College (now the University of Maryland) . . .
Eight of the couple’s nine children survived to adulthood with remarkable life stories attesting to the resilience, faith, and values of an enslaved family. They endured separations and auctions, succeeded and failed at escape attempts, founded a church, and retrieved one daughter sold south.
Patriarch Adam was literate. He left a record of his dynamic life stories in a diary recording significant family events, money borrowed and repaid, and an inventory of his wife’s cabin. Recovered from a relative’s attic in 2001, his long-lost diary was donated to the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum. The diary and a transcript is on the museum’s website.
Adam and Emily’s youngest daughter, Nellie Arnold Plummer, self-published a spiritual memoir in 1927, “Out of the Depths, or The Triumph of the Cross.” She recounted her family history in honor of her parents and oldest brother’s and sister’s lives in slavery. With an introduction by Joanne M. Braxton, the book was reprinted in 1997 (New York: G. K. Hall, African American Women Writers, 1910–1940 series, Henry Louis Gates Jr., general editor). The book is the source for much of the family’s history:
Adam worked for young Charles Benedict Calvert, who would eventually found the Maryland Agricultural College (now the University of Maryland), serve in state and federal government positions, and headed up what we now know as the Department of Agriculture. Nellie portrays the two as enjoying a mutually respectful relationship.
After marrying Emily in a Washington, DC, church in 1841, Adam walked weekends to visit her and their growing family at Three Sisters Plantation.
Their failed escape attempt in 1845 led to punishment for Emily and her eventual sale along with three of their children (Henry, Julia, and Saunders) to Colonel Gilbert Livingston Thompson and his wife May Ann. Emily and the children were moved to Meridian Hill in Washington, DC, and then to Howard County, Maryland, with the Thompsons. Two of the children, Miranda and Elias, remained at Three Sisters.
Adam apparently received no punishment, and he continued to visit his family when he could. The family grew, adding Margaret and twins Robert and Nellie. Marjory Ellen Rose died in infancy.