In 2008, still in the early stages of researching the history of African Americans who had lived at St. Mary’s City during the 19th century, I was alerted by my colleagues about an oral history that had been conducted by Merideth Taylor, a professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, with a woman named Emma Hall. This interview was a fascinating glimpse into the life of a young black girl who grew up in a difficult world, living through segregation and the Civil Rights Movement and working for many years across the street at St. Mary’s College. It was a story about her family and her community, and the life that they lived in an old, two-room house along the St. Mary’s River.
For the research, the story was important for one critical reason: the house that she grew up in was the old duplex quarter that I was studying, and that makes up the majority of the analysis shared in this exhibit. It had been home to African American families since the 1840s, when it was built as a slave cabin by Dr. John Mackall Brome, who owned and operated one of the largest plantations in Southern Maryland. Then, the home was not for one family: it was a duplex, and was home to multiple enslaved families. Also, we have learned through archaeological and historical research, the building did not stand alone. It was flanked by, at most, nine other structures, all full of black laborers; there were over sixty of them by the beginning of the Civil War.
This exhibit is the story of those people who lived in these buildings. It encompasses not only their lives during slavery, but the great tension that existed during the Civil War in a Union state, and the life after slavery was abolished. It probes questions about resistance, dominance, freedom, racism, poverty, and survival. Most importantly, however, we have tried to pull on a theme that shone through in Ms. Hall’s story: a story of family and community.
During the interview, Ms. Hall talks about her typical Sunday. Her family would wake up early, and begin walking, as a family, to church. A three mile walk, it took them almost two hours to complete the journey. Why so long, you may ask? She tells us:
I went to Zion Methodist Church…and we walked….we walked. We had to leave home by 9:30 and got there by 11 o’clock. It was a hoot…you know how you walk and you meet up with the next group of children? All of us would walk together.
This quote has stuck with me throughout the research process, because I think it encapsulates more than a statement about walking to church: it tells the story of community and family, and it suggests steady, continuous, movement. This movement, and the encouragement and support of families and communities, was a pivotal part of African American life. Mobility was the thing that was restricted or forced during slavery, be it through the Middle Passage over the Atlantic, or across the United States in coffles from tobacco country to the deep cotton south. Yet, enslaved blacks used mobility to challenge slavery, using it to escape to the north, or to visit their wives, husbands, and children on neighboring plantations. During the Civil War, slaves escaped to Union forts in droves, or joined the military to fight for their freedom. After slavery, the ability to walk away from oppressive working conditions, or to go to school or to church was a new freedom that was exercised liberally and with determination. And certainly, there is little doubt that the Civil Rights Movement was about mobility, community, and walking together.
A slave coffle in Washington, DC (courtesy of the Library of Congress).
African American protests during the Civil Rights Movement in Washington, DC (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
It is with this in mind that we have tried to build an exhibit that will encompass these themes of movement and togetherness. The site is full of opportunities for interaction, and we hope that you, as visitors, will take advantage of it: leave us comments, ask us questions, interact with us on Twitter, and send us emails. We are engaging in a number of projects both online and off to bring to light the story of those who lived and worked on the grounds of St. Mary’s City, and we want to work together with you on the project. The first step was the construction of this digital exhibit, in order to provide an introduction of what we have learned thus far about those who lived on the plantation during the 19th century. The second part is the rehabilitation of the Duplex Quarter, that was home to so many African American families, including Emma Hall’s, for over 100 years. Our goal is to turn it into an exhibit telling this story, and we will chronicle the entire process on this blog. Other steps include continued research into the material lives of those who lived on the site, through archaeological analysis and excavations, and locating and incorporating descendants of those who had lived on the plantation. And, most importantly, beginning to build a community around this story so that researchers and members of the public can begin to walk together towards a greater understanding and appreciation for the past, and, hopefully, each other.
As with any undertaking, there are a number of people to thank for their time, input, and support. We would like to thank the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Ford Foundation, and the SRI Foundation for their financial backing of the construction of the website. We would also like to thank the Maryland Commission for African American History and Culture and the Maryland Historical Trust for their support of the rehabilitation and interpretation of the Duplex Quarter. We would like to thank the local members and organizations of the African American community who have provided their input and feedback on the site, in particular Kelsey Bush and Merideth Taylor of the UCAC. We are looking forward to continuing to work closely with all of you over the coming years on more projects. Together.
What does the phrase “All of us Would Walk Together” mean to you? How is community and family an integral part of your life? Share with us below!