BALTIMORE — The driver wore a tiered cape over the double-breasted coat with gold buttons. The look would have been completed with a beaver fur top hat with gold braid. It cost the equivalent of more than six months' labor.
The outfit is a riddle. Well-tailored but garish. Expensive, but nothing that a wealthy man would have chosen to wear. The coat's label: "Tilghman Davis 1888."
It was this uniform that Davis donned as a paid driver for the Ridgelys, a wealthy Maryland family who had held him in slavery years before. The coat's buttons bear the family's crest.
What went on in Davis' mind as he wore these clothes? Was he proud? Disgusted? He never learned to read or write, and leaves behind no letters or diaries. We have only his jacket.
Harvard historian Jonathan Square studies clothing worn by enslaved people. He reads these garments the way others might read a text. "There's a lot of political information embedded in the clothes that we wear," he said.
Davis' coat would have marked him as a laborer for the Ridgelys while projecting the family's wealth and status to the world. In the 19th century, rich slaveholders often ordered expensive livery from high-end companies like Brooks Brothers to clothe public-facing slaves and servants. "Livery was a little over-designed," Square said. "It wasn't fashionable or trendy or in vogue."
The Ridgelys' members included the 15th governor of Maryland. Hampton, their property north of Towson, stretched to nearly 25,000 acres at its height, with hundreds of enslaved laborers tending its massive grounds and ironworks. When it was built, their mansion was the largest private home in the U.S.
Davis was born at the plantation in 1843, two years after his family was purchased by Jonathan Ridgely, according to a history compiled by the Maryland Center for History and Culture. He eventually worked as a driver for the family. As a youth, Davis would have apprenticed under Nathan Harris, an enslaved coachman famous throughout Baltimore for his ability to drive a four-horse carriage.
"Being an expert carriage driver was a real skill and something that was looked on as an extraordinary asset," said Hampton curator Gregory Weidman.
But skills and comparatively elite status didn't mean liberty. Whether they worked in the fields, the furnace or, like Davis, in the stable, enslaved people at Hampton were subject to brutal punishments from overseers and owners. John Ridgely's grandson recounted times when the old man would "box the ears of one of the grooms for reasons which seemed to me entirely inadequate."