Tracing Lives From Slavery to Freedom
Professor Leads Slavery Research at Historic Maryland Estate
Just north of Towson in Baltimore County, surrounded by manicured gardens and massive shade trees, sits an opulent Georgian mansion believed to be the largest private home in America at the time of its construction in 1790.
“Whenever you see mind-boggling wealth from the early republic, you have to know that slavery was behind it,” said Cheryl LaRoche, a research professor with UMD’s Department of Anthropology and Historic Preservation Program.
Yet until now, little was known about the lives of the people enslaved who worked at the former plantation once owned by the 15th governor of Maryland, Charles Carnan Ridgely, and now known as the Hampton National Historic Site.
For the last two years, LaRoche has been leading a group of researchers dedicated to identifying the hundreds of men, women and children who were enslaved at Hampton in the hopes of discovering what happened to them and their descendants. In partnership with the National Park Service, which operates the site, researchers from UMD, Towson University, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Nanny Jack & Co. Archives started the Hampton Ethnographic Project.
The Hampton Ethnographic Team presented some of its findings at a symposium Friday at Towson University, and on Saturday, living history interpreters in period attire provided guided tours for the public at the Hampton estate, highlighting stories of the enslaved workers.
The project involved piecing together those stories by painstakingly combing through grainy photographs, lists of only first and middle names, archives, census records, historic maps of the estate’s grounds that once encompassed 25,000 acres, oral histories and in-depth interviews with descendants.
“We were like detectives trying to crack the code, and by cracking this code, we were able to humanize people who were previously just names on lists,” LaRoche said.
Ridgely’s death in 1829 triggered either outright emancipation or gradual freedom from slavery at Hampton. Once the research team was able to identify those enslaved, they began tracing their lives and genealogy, connecting family lines throughout Pennsylvania and Maryland. Included among the descendants were several prominent figures in Maryland’s history, including Harry S. Cummings, one of the first African-Americans admitted to the University of Maryland School of Law and Baltimore’s first black City Council member.
LaRoche and the rest of the research team also reached out to some of the living descendants to tell them about their findings. Most, including Myra “Neicy” Deshields-Moulton from York, Pa., had never heard of the Hampton estate and had no idea their ancestors had once been enslaved there.
“It’s very sad to know they were enslaved, but being African-American, it of course didn’t surprise me at all,” Deshields-Moulton said. “Still, at least I know where they came from.”
Deshields-Moulton hopes the work of the Hampton Ethnographic Team will help change the conversation about slavery in America and encourage more people to look at the combined history of both African-Americans and white Americans.
“We don’t acknowledge slavery, for one, and we don’t acknowledge that places like Hampton wouldn’t have existed without African-Americans to build and maintain them, she said. “We need to come out and talk about these things.”
For more information about the Hampton National Historic Site or public tours offered at the estate, visit nps.gov/hamp.