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UMD Uncovering Oldest U.S. Community of Free Blacks?

July 15, 2013
Contacts: 

Neil Tickner 301-405-7476

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – A University of Maryland archaeological team is excavating what may be the oldest community of free African Americans in the United States. Preliminary evidence indicates that the area in downtown Easton, Maryland, known as "The Hill," may predate by more than two decades the oldest known U.S. community of free African Americans.

U.S. Census and land records indicate a number of free African Americans settling on The Hill between 1789 and 1800, the research team says. Currently, Treme, a New Orleans neighborhood, is recognized as the oldest free black community in the nation. It dates to 1812, and recently celebrated its bicentennial.

Audrey Schaefer (UMD Undergraduate) describing the work in her excavation unit to a tour group from the Maryland State Archives.The team is digging on the property of the Talbot County Women's Club, headquartered in a house that dates to at least 1793 – one of the oldest on The Hill. The 1800 Census indicates that three free African Americans lived on the property.

So far, the team has confirmed that the archaeology of the site has been undisturbed by development in succeeding centuries. Also, they recovered some raw material there that suggests one of these African Americans may have worked as a blacksmith.

"Records paint a stark, high-contrast image of this area shortly after the American Revolution," says University of Maryland archaeologist Mark Leone, who is leading the excavation and directs the Archaeology in Annapolis program. "On The Hill and throughout this county, hundreds of free African Americans appear to have lived cheek-by-jowl with whites. Yet just down the road, plantations flourished with hundreds of black slaves. Our excavation may confirm this picture and uncover some of the striking social nuances."

Leone is collaborating with another research team at Morgan State University in Baltimore led by Dale Green, a professor of architectural history and preservation who researched Talbot County, Maryland land records and Census data. He estimates that 410 free African Americans lived there by 1790 – a development that began decades before. His work provided a compass for where to dig and what to look for.

Elizabeth Berry, Nicole Punzi, and Angie Barrall (UMD Undergraduates) screening soil from the excavation on The Hill at the Women's Club of Talbot County."We've dug through the records, and now with this excavation, we can let the land tell the story," Green says. "This is an important and remarkable story of race, place and time that can provide a new understanding of a highly complex social landscape. A measure of unity existed among some religious and racial groups. Perhaps the objects they left behind can give a voice to these unsung social pioneers."

At the dawn of the republic, as early as 1789 – even before the first U.S. Census – Green says a free black man purchased a property on The Hill at the corner of Goldsborough and Aurora Street. A woman named Grace Brooks purchased her family's freedom in 1788 and property on The Hill in 1792.

"The community most likely began to form in one way or another following the freeing of slaves by Methodists and Quakers who lived in the area," says UMD doctoral student Stefan Woelke, who is directing the site work for Leone. "We know little about the lives of these free African Americans in the 18th century, so whatever we find in the ground should provide new clues to the texture of their lives."

Another of Leone's UMD doctoral students Tracy Jenkins has worked with Green combing Census records from 1790 through 1820.

"I EXPECT ARCHAEOLOGY TO SAVE THE NEIGHBORHOOD"
Efforts to raze and redevelop The Hill brought together an unusual community-based team to save it. Historic Easton, representing diverse community factions, is funding the research and the excavation – for its educational impact, to establish The Hill's historic provenance and to gather community support.

Stefan Woehlke and Kathrina Aben (UMD Graduate Students) describing the excavation process to a tour from the Maryland State Archives"I expect archaeology to save the neighborhood," says Priscilla Morris, an Historic Easton officer who has been investigating Hill history for more than a decade. "There is potential to save the built environment by digging up the cultural significance. I expect renewed and expanded pride of place to follow. Kids are chasing Professor Green during his walking tours this summer and asking him "are we really the oldest?"

The President of Historic Easton, Carlene Phoenix, spent much of her time growing up on The Hill and wants to restore the vital community values she remembers, as much as the buildings.

"Once, the Hill was like a little town, self-contained and self-sufficient," Phoenix says. "It's part of our identity and who we are. The people who lived here paved the way for us, and we owe it to them to recover their rich history. The Hill can and should become an historic destination."

Morris, who describes herself as an amateur historian, adds that the area's history has been popularly known for its past slaveholders and slaves, especially Frederick Douglass, who grew up nearby. These excavations may help produce a better understanding of this unusually early pocket of abolition and free blacks.

"Until now, the story was told by its plantation elite and by Frederick Douglass," explains Morris. "This quieter and more complex story of early emancipation, commerce, and property ownership is one we are just on the cusp of acknowledging. It is time to learn what we don't know. If we don't dig out the truth of it now, we may lose our past."

The excavation will continue through July 26th. University of Maryland students are conducting the excavation work under the auspices of Archaeology in Annapolis.