“It’s the oldest free black, African American neighborhood in the country that has been continuously inhabited and still in existence,” said Dale Green, an assistant professor in the Department of Architecture at Morgan State University.
The neighborhood is called “the Hill,” and for the past two weeks a team of archaeologists and anthropologists has been digging for its story in the back yard of the local women’s club.
Scholars think the Hill may predate, by several years, New Orleans’s famous neighborhood Treme, often described as the country’s oldest black community.
“In 1790, there were 410 free persons of color who lived on what we know as the Hill,” Green said this week — roughly twice the number who lived in Baltimore.
“The Hill had the largest concentration of free blacks in the Chesapeake region,” he said. “What you have in the name of the Hill is a real, rare, intact, continuously occupied and inhabited black neighborhood.”
Treme celebrated its bicentennial in 2012, though its founding is sometimes dated to 1810, and its roots likely go back further.
But Green said, “Treme is far younger than what we’re working with here.”
The project, a collaboration between, among others, Morgan State and the University of Maryland, started about four years ago with a study for the community of the history of the Hill’s black churches.
“When we finished that, they were like, ‘We hate to see you guys go,’ ” Green said. “That’s when they pull this card out, like, ‘You know, this neighborhood’s old.’ ”
“What’s ‘old’?” Green said the researchers asked.
The community members responded: “We don’t know. We want you guys to define how old ‘old’ is.”
Green, who grew up on the outskirts of the Hill, and his colleagues began to look.
“The thing about Talbot County is, it’s rich in history,” said Carlene Phoenix, president of Historic Easton, who lobbied for the neighborhood research. “But when it comes to especially African American history, it was always about slavery. But now we’ve got another story.”
The project researchers found that many Talbot County slaves were freed after the abolitionist Quaker preacher John Woolman came through Easton in 1766, urging fellow Friends to abandon slavery.
Easton sea captain Jeremiah Banning, who personally bought his 21 slaves in Senegal, freed them in his will.
And the researchers came upon the story of a slave, Grace Brooks, who purchased her freedom and that of her children and grandchildren with money she earned as a midwife.
Many of these now-free blacks probably made their way to the Hill, which was fast becoming an island of liberty surrounded by plantations, Green said.