Use the map above to see where St. Mary’s City is located.

Since St. Mary’s City’s founding in the 17th century as the first capital of Maryland, the spot along the St. Mary’s River has been home to Africans and African Americans. While the physical site at Historic St. Mary’s City depicts the 17th-century landscape, there is more to be learned about the lives of the African and African Americans who lived and worked within the city, on its surrounding plantations, and into the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. This story tells the tale of the emergence of slavery from indentured servitude during the 17th century, the growth of slavery and tobacco production in the 18th century, the transition from slavery to freedom during the 19th century, and the life of African American tenant farmers during the late 19th and 20th centuries. Coupled with these transitions is the day-to-day struggle African and African American families and communities engaged in against slavery, poverty, racism, and segregation.

This online exhibit examines one chapter in this long story of African American life at St. Mary’s City: the transition from slavery to freedom on an agricultural plantation during the 19th century. Through the use of historical, archaeological, and architectural evidence, this exhibit begins in 1840, when the debate over slavery in America had reached a fevered pitch, and when many African Americans were the product of multiple generations of slaves. The practice of slavery was deeply rooted in the fabric of a young nation, particularly on the agricultural fields of those in the South. Yet, the struggle against slavery was mounting, and with the expansion of the nation, the continued resistance by those in bondage and a growing abolitionist movement, the cause of freedom began to permeate the public and private discourse.

This exhibit works in two parts: the first is the story of St. Mary’s Manor from 1840 through 1900, with a particular focus on the lives of the African Americans who lived and worked on the plantation. It extends from slavery through the Civil War and into the post-slavery era, highlighting the changes that families and communities underwent as the conditions under which they lived changed. The second portion is highlighted on the research blog: this area focuses on how archaeologists, historians, and preservationists use historical, archaeological, and architectural data to draw conclusions about the past. These posts will cover ongoing research and preservation efforts being conducted at Historic St. Mary’s City by researchers as they continue to examine the historical and archaeological record of those who lived during the 19th century, and as they build an exhibit in the last remaining slave/tenant quarters that was lived in by African Americans at St. Mary’s City.

This exhibit is interactive. Each page, both in the exhibit and on the blog are equipped to handle your comments and questions: please take part in sharing your thoughts about the past as you learn it. You can also interact with us on Twitter, where we will share real-time comments and photos of the research as it continues. We have also set up a page for you to take part in other activities that are available to you through Historic St. Mary’s City, and we encourage you to also contact us privately through our contact form. Please remember that the content and issues surrounding African American history contain sensitive and delicate issues including but not exclusive to race and racism: please ensure that your comments are thoughtful and considerate of a diversity of opinions and viewpoints. Please read our commenting policy for more information: our hope is to establish a diverse community of learners who will work together to build a better and more inclusive understanding of the past at St. Mary’s City.

Learn about Agriculture and Labor in Maryland →

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