Salisbury’s Slave Pens

20131202_132315Yes, Salisbury had slave pens.  It is not something I’ve heard specifically mentioned before.  Other places not so far from the town were known to have dealt in the buying and selling of slaves, but it seemed not a topic of description for downtown  Salisbury.  Perhaps it has been mentioned, but my guess is if discussed, not loudly.

The Wicomico County courthouse, built in 1878, sits on the former site of Byrd Tavern.  The following description is from Historic Salisbury, Maryland, the 1932 bicentennial edition, by Charles J. Truitt:

This, the most famous of the early taverns, was operated by John Byrd.  He was slain, supposedly by a Union soldier, during the war.  His slayer, however, was never identified.

The tavern was much of a community center.  There planters came to buy and sell slaves and to barter merchandise.  In the basement and at the rear were the slave pens.  The building was a low, rambling frame structure, with dormer windows and double tier porch which extended across the whole length of its front.

The tavern was razed in 1878 for the then new county courthouse.  The county had not long ago been formed; Wicomico County formed in 1867, created from Somerset and Worcester Counties.  The site is on the east side of Division Street, the once dividing line between the two older counties.

Not long after the construction of the courthouse, Frederick Douglas came and spoke in the building to a mixed audience.  I wonder if at that time he knew about the building’s history and that of Byrd Tavern.  So whenever you visit the courthouse in Salisbury, know that at the very site once stood a busy tavern with slave pens and dealers busying themselves in the commerce of enslaved people.

— Linda Duyer

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