The James Holliday House and Family

Source: Dee Levister through the Kunte-Kinte Alex Haley Foundation

James Holliday c. mid 19th century Source: Dee Levister through the Kunte-Kinte Alex Haley Foundation

To put our last post into context, I’ve put together a brief history of the James Holliday, his family and their property in Annapolis.

The property on which the James Holliday sits was originally part of the land surveyed and designated for Governor Francis Nicholson in 1696. Between 1700 and 1850, the property changed hands six times and it appears that the James Holliday House was built between 1784 and 1819. Finally, in 1850, James Holliday purchased two lots within this land for $650, which included the still-standing brick townhouse.

James Holliday was born around 1809 and was a slave in southern Anne Arundel County until 1819. James Holliday worked for the U.S. Naval Academy as a steward messenger for every superintendent from 1845, when the Academy opened in Annapolis, until his death in 1882. When James Holliday died his property was left to his daughter Eleanora. Eleanora Holliday married Benjamin Briscoe, a sailor for the US Navy, in 1883 and they lived in the house with their children until 1923 when Eleanora died. When Eleanora passed away, she left the house and property to her daughters, Eleanor and Lucy Louis.

Lucy Louis Briscoe, a school teacher, married Joseph Anthony Brown in 1923. Joseph Brown was a custodian at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Her sister, Eleanor Briscoe, was a dressmaker who married Cosme Portilla, a Filipino cook for the US Navy in 1919. Eleanor and her family lived in the James Holliday House until Eleanor sold her portion of the house to her sister in 1926. This gave Lucy Brown and her husband Joseph total ownership of the James Holliday House.

Lucy Briscoe Brown died in 1959, leaving the house to her husband Joseph. Joseph Brown deeded the property to Lucy’s nephew and godson, Marcellus Michael Portilla and his wife, Eva, in 1960. Finally, Eva and Marcellus Michael Portilla left the property to their daughter, who owns the property today.

Archaeology began at the James Holliday House in December of 2009 at the invitation of the current homeowner. Work continued during the summer of 2010, with two units placed in the backyard of the property. We hope that this continued work will add to our understanding of this unique family and their position within the historic communities of Annapolis.

  1. I read the article in newswise about the differences in types of table settings (dishes without patterns as the white anglo persons preferred) and water preferences etc and wondered if people of color had retained and passed on some of their cultural knowledge of what is safe and what might not be safe on the table, i.e.
    Lack of the design on dishes perhaps wiser choice; maybe they knew that pigments could be dangerous to ingest. Some of the “differences” to white culture and taste may indicate a better knowledge of what served them best in health and safety.

  2. Martha – The differences between dishes used to set the table in African American communities, and those used in Anglo communities is not that one was decorated and one was not, but rather that Victorian Etiquette prescribed matching sets of dishes. The type of decoration was not as important as making sure that all the decoration (or lack of decoration) matched. Almost all of the dishes that would have been on a 19th century table were glazed in a lead-based glaze, and we have found no indication that health knowledge related to toxic chemicals in dishes was shared by any community in Annapolis.

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