Untold story of a 13-year-old Black girl who helped design America’s iconic Star-Spangled Banner

Two hundred years ago, she worked as an indentured servant in the house of a seamstress in Baltimore.

Inside a chamber encased with waterproof glass panels in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History lies the “Star-Spangled Banner,” spread out flat for visitors to view. Also known as the Great Garrison Flag, the Star-Spangled Banner is the national flag of the United States. People who visit usually admire its design comprised of horizontal red and white stripes with white stars popping from a blue field. However, the banner tells a 200-year-old story that includes a teen African-American girl named Grace Wisher, who contributed to the design of this banner.

The banner’s design is typically attributed to a prominent Baltimorean seamstress named Mary Young Pickersgill. She sewed it under a government commission in 1813 for $405.90. Pickersgill made the flag with assistance from her daughter and two nieces. But the little-known truth is that a 13-year-old African-American indentured servant, Wisher, also contributed to this work.

 

According to Maryland State Archives, indentured servants were persons obliged by contract to work for a stated number of years. In the colonial period, Annapolis and Baltimore were major ports of entry for forced laborers from Europe. During the early settlement of Maryland, many newcomers were indentured servants who wanted to immigrate to the colony, but could not pay for travel. Those people could agree to exchange time in service for the cost of the voyage. One form of indenture obliged the master to provide transportation, food, clothing and lodging for the servant during the term of servitude.

Image Source: Library of Congress
Image Source: Library of Congress

On completion of the servant’s term, the master may have promised to furnish clothing, a year’s provision of corn, and the right to 50 acres of land. The usual length of service was 4 to 5 years, but in the case of a valuable skilled worker, such as a blacksmith or cooper, the time could be shortened to induce the person to sign. The terms of Grace’s indenture, as per National Park Service, were fairly standard, with Mary promising to provide food, shelter, and clothing, and to teach Grace “the art of Housework and plain sewing.” Mary also promised to pay Grace’s mother $12 at the beginning and end of the indenture.

The Star-Spangled Banner that Grace helped design was the flag that flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the naval portion of the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. The flag fluttering at Fort McHenry on the morning of September 14, 1814, after the battle ended, inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” These lyrics were written by Key and set to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a popular song at the time, by John Stafford Smith. In 1931 the song became the national anthem of the United States.

Image Source: Smithsonian's National Museum of American History
Image Source: Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

 

The home where Mary and Wisher lived is now a museum called the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House. It exhibits a 1962 painting by famed Baltimore artist Robert McGill Mackall. The painting features Mary’s 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. In 2014, the Flag House paid tribute to Wisher through a show titled “For Whom It Stands: The Flag and the American People,” in collaboration with the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland, which displayed several other artifacts dating to this period of history.

Wisher, who might have been from Europe, is one of those people who write their pennyworth in golden letters while remaining in the shadows. Her obscure story is an inspiration for historians to dig deeper into the archives and discover more of these untold legacies.

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