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Grace Wisher: The overlooked history of the black girl who helped create the American flag

Por: María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards 15 de junio de 2022

American history has been successful in erasing the contributions of people of color in their origin stories. The creation of the American flag is no exception.

The origin story of the American Flag has as many legends and creation myths as the stars and stripes of the current emblem. What is well-known is that just one year after the signing of the Declaration of Independence from British rule, the new country needed a flag to represent its new values and hopes for the future.

As you might imagine, the creation of such an important symbol had to have an equally emblematic story, and back in the day, those values could only be represented by white folk. As such, many of the stories regarding the creation of the several versions of the flag, are often riddled with inspirational white characters completely erasing the contributions of people of color in their craft.

That is the case of the Star-Spangled Banner, also known as the Great Garrison Flag, the flag that inspired the National Anthem. This banner with 15 stripes and stars, is credited to Major General George Armistead and the seamstress Mary Pickersgill, who, joined by her daughters, put her heart and soul to finish the monumental flag in time before the great Battle of Baltimore in 1812. What history failed to recognize, is that Pickersgill could’ve never finished the iconic flag without the work of a black indentured girl by the name of Grace Wisher and a slave girl whose name is still unknown.

Who was Grace Wisher?

Is likely that we’ll never know the name of the enslaved girl that helped Pickersgill put the flag together since there is no name registered. However, we do know a bit about Grace Wisher, a 13-year-old girl who had been indentured at the age of 10 to the famous flag maker.

Back in the day, black people were seen as sources of labor regardless of their freedom status. Grace Wisher was a free black girl whose mother decided to send her to Mary Pickersgill as an apprentice, or indenture, for six years. At that time, free black people didn’t have many economic opportunities, and although they kept their status of freedom, they often ended up getting poorly paid jobs under abusive conditions. Indentures then were just contracts created by white people and the parents of black children to house them and feed them, in return, these kids would simply work as servants while learning a new skill.

Indentures were quite risky for these children. They could find themselves under the service of cruel bosses who could simply kidnap them and sell them into slavery in the south. Fortunately for Grace, Mary Pickersgill had no such intentions. Although there’s not much information on Grace’s history, it’s believed that her father was likely still enslaved, and her mother thought Pickersgill would be the best chance for her daughter to have a brighter future; at the end of the day there were no schools for black children, and learning a skill would help her thrive in life.

All in all, life placed Grace Wisher in the household of Mary Pickersgill and would be helping her make history even when she wouldn’t be recognized for almost two centuries.

Making the Star-Spangled Banner

So, how did Mary Pickersgill come to be the one commissioned to elaborate the Star-Spangled flag? Let’s start by giving a little context on the history of the American flag. On June 14, 1777, it was declared that the flag of the United States had to have thirteen stripes alternating in red and white representing the thirteen former colonies, now states, and that there would be thirteen white stars over a blue canvas representing a new constellation. Still, the declarations failed to specify the position of the stars and dozens of variations appeared throughout the new nation.

In 1795, to celebrate the entry of Vermont and Kentucky as states of the Union, a new flag with 15 stars and 15 stripes was created. In 1814, amid the revolutionary war against the Brits, Major General George Armistead prevented a battle in Baltimore, so to impress the invading army, he wanted to display a massive flag that could be seen from afar. Mary Pickersgill was a young widower who happened to be quite knowledgable in the flag-making business; she was the daughter of Rebeca Young, another of the famous women who crafted the first American flags.

Major Armistead, asked Mary to create a new flag with the 15 stripes and stars that measured 30 by 42 feet, almost the size of a three-story building. As if the task wasn’t difficult enough, the major wanted it to be ready in no more than six weeks, when they were expecting to Brits to attack the city. Putting all her resources to work, including her daughters, nieces, her indentured apprentice, and a slave girl, Mary Pickersgill got down to business to create one of the most important flags in American history.

Of course, paintings, illustrations, and stories were created to celebrate the work of Pickersgill and her family to put together such an impressive flag. But these deliberately omit the hard work of Grace and the Jane Doe slave that literally bleed their hands to make it happen. Because let’s be honest, who do you think worked harder and the longest to make this possible?

Today, Mary Pickersgill’s house, where the Star-Spangled Banner was crafted is now a museum. Grace Wisher’s story was only acknowledged in the past decades, and to honor her forgotten, or better said overlooked contribution to the creation of the national emblem, a lined silhouette (with no face) has been added to some of the paintings of the time. The flag was restored by the Smithsonian curators and is now exhibited at the American History Museum in Washington D.C., but Grace Wisher’s contributions are only mildly celebrated at a small museum in Baltimore most people don’t even know it exists.

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