Mary Dines made her way to the front of a gathering at a Freedmen’s camp in Washington, D.C., her knees nervously shaking. She joined her fellow inhabitants, all dressed in the best clothes on hand, some wearing castoff blue uniforms, and others in discarded rebel gray.
As she prepared to lead the group in song, Mary scanned the crowd of white dignitaries and others who had assembled and glimpsed President Abraham Lincoln. Mary kept her eye on him as she called the first song, “Nobody Knows What Trouble I see, But Jesus,” and sang the first verse solo in her sweet soprano voice. Then, the rest of the chorus joined in. They “really sang as they never did before,” she told an interviewer years after the camp concert. “To her great surprise, as she came out to call the next song, ‘Every Time I Feel the Spirit,’ she saw President Lincoln wiping the tears off his face with his bare hands.”
Mary’s journey to the camp was an all too familiar story. Born enslaved in Prince George’s County, Md., she spent her early years on a farm owned by a wealthy bachelor. He freed Mary and other slaves upon his death, but the late owner’s family overruled the decree and sold them. Mary landed in southern Maryland, where the new master whipped her severely and often.
She eventually escaped via the Underground Railroad to Washington. After the war began and refugee camps were established at various locations to house the displaced slaves, Mary became a part of the facility located along Capitol Hill at Duff Green’s Row. Here, she rose to become an informal leader in the community known as “Aunt Mary,” a naming convention that not only respected her role, but also reinforced the hierarchy of blacks and whites.
About this time she and the camp’s chorus performed for President Lincoln and his entourage. According to her postwar interview, “a picture man drove out with his buggy and little tent and took pictures of everybody” prior to the concert. It is unclear if prints produced from these photographic plates survived.
This portrait pictures Mary at the zenith of her influence. Printed on the mount are words from the 1836 gospel hymn “Palms of Victory” by Methodist John B. Matthias. Affixed to the back is a revenue stamp, hand-cancelled with “June 14,” which dates the image to 1865 or 1866.
Mary shared details her life and deeds, including her interactions with President Lincoln, with John E. Washington. A resident of the District of Columbia, Washington came to know Mary through his parents and their friends. He told her story, and others in his family’s network, in the 1942 book They Knew Lincoln.
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