Using painful pieces of history, Prince George’s hopes to boost tourism


Gwendolyn Briley-Strand, right, an actor playing the role of a slave on the Salubria plantation in Prince George's County's talks with Laurence D. Winston Sr., president of the African American Heritage Preservation Group, at the opening of the “Experience Salubria” at the Potomac River Heritage Visitors Center. The center is at National Harbor. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

In November 1834, a 14-year-old girl named Judah, who was a house slave to a Prince George’s County plantation owner, “confessed” to poisoning the owner’s three children and trying to set his mansion on fire.

Judah, who had no recorded last name, was tried in an Upper Marlboro court, found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to be “hanged by the neck.”

“Judah and Resistance” is part of an African American heritage exhibit that opened Tuesday at National Harbor’s Tanger Outlets mall. The exhibit, which is intended to draw tourists to Prince George’s, also poses the question whether Judah’s act was one of resistance to the cruelties of slavery.

“In the 200 years of slave holding in Prince George’s County, enslaved Marylanders carried out thousands of acts of resistance,” declares the exhibit, titled “Experience Salubria,” after the plantation where Judah was enslaved. “Besides fleeing North or enlisting in the military during wars, they managed work slow-downs, feigned illness, broke tools and more seriously burned property, stole, fought, murdered and conducted insurrections.”

These little-known acts of resistance in Prince George’s, the biggest slave-owning county in Maryland, is one of many stories that local historians say need to be told.

“We have such jewels of history in the county,” said Rhonda Dallas, executive director for Prince George’s County Arts and Humanities Council and project curator of the “Experience Salubria” exhibit.

County officials have launched a campaign to attract more of the 40 million Washington area tourists to Prince George’s, where historians have uncovered fascinating tales of slave life and slave rebellion in a Union state. In 1860, 12,479 slaves, 1,205 free blacks and 9,650 whites lived in Prince George’s, according to census records.

“This is the first time the African American story is told alongside the plantation story,” said David Turner, a historian and a former chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission in Prince George’s. “We’re not just saying come look at the lovely mansions. We want tourists to see history from the eyes of the slave.”


Gwendolyn Briley-Strand, right, playing the role of a slave on the Salubria plantation, tries to lure Sharonda Smith, left, and Sabrina Romero, center, into the opening of the “Experience Salubria” exhibit. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Historical sites in Prince George’s include dozens of plantation houses. Among them are Oxon Hill Manor, one of the first big houses on the Potomac River; Billingsley House in Upper Marlboro; and Riversdale Manor House, the plantation home of the founder of the University of Maryland.

Other significant sites include the Good Luck School for Colored, a one-room schoolhouse in Glenn Dale; the Butler House, a rare historical farm owned by free blacks; and Wilmer’s Park in Brandywine, which was part of the “chitlin’ circuit,” where Aretha Franklin and other musicians performed after gigs in the District.

“The African American sites are very fragile because they didn’t have the resources to build them out of the brick,” Turner said. “There is a tremendous history of African American blacks along the Potomac, including the mass escape during the War of 1812 by 36 African Americans who escaped Potomac River plantations in Prince George’s after the British promised them freedom.” Details of the escape are included in the exhibit.

“Experience Salubria” exemplifies what happens when government and county residents work together to preserve history, County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) said. Had it not been for heritage preservationists, Baker said, “this would simply be a shopping mall. . . . But today, when you come here and bring your children and walk here, you are left with the struggle of what happened in this place.”

The number of tourists who visited Prince George’s climbed from 4.4 million in 2008 to 5.9 million in 2012, according to Tourism Economics, a company that tracks tourism. The county would like to host an even greater share of the more than 40 million who visit the D.C. area each year.


An attentive audience listens to short talks at the opening of the “Experience Salubria” exhibit at the Potomac River Heritage Visitors Center. The center is located in the Tanger Outlets mall at National Harbor. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Tanger Outlets was built on land formerly occupied by the Salubria plantation, which was owned by John H. Bayne. Bayne advocated an end to slavery 30 years after his children were killed by Judah. As part of the agreement to build the mall, developers undertook extensive archaeological excavations. Artifacts found included vases, horseshoes and buttons, which are displayed in the Potomac River Heritage Visitors Center in the mall.

Across the parking lot is the Salubria Memorial Garden, where Judah’s story is told on a series of panels. “Judah’s rebellion happened the same year as Nat Turner,” said Turner, walking through the garden. “She was a house slave, and she would have had knowledge about Nat Turner.”

June White Dillard, executive director for the African American Heritage Preservation Group, a local organization that was instrumental in establishing the historical site, said she believes Judah’s story is one of resistance to slavery. “There is lots of speculation as to why she did it,” Dillard said. “We don’t have any real documentation on that. But she could have been disciplined severely, or perhaps her mother was sold away. The poison Judah used was arsenic obtained from the office of Bayne, who was a doctor.”


Actor Gwendolyn Briley-Strand, left, poses for a portrait with members of the Salubria Project Team — Rhonda Dallas, second from left, June White Dillard and David Turner — in the newly opened Salubria Memorial Garden. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

The Memorial Garden also includes panels about the emancipation of Maryland slaves, who were not freed until Nov. 1, 1864, a year after slaves in Confederate states were released. President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation allowed slavery to continue in states loyal to the Union, such as Maryland.

The panels feature photos of artifacts from the Maryland Archives, including an advertisement posted by Bayne, who owned 19 “technically skilled” slaves, including Judah. The ad seeks a slave who had escaped Salubria.

“Runaway . . . on Sunday, the 8th if [sic] November, my negro man, SAM, who calls himself Samuel Tyler . . . ordinary stature, about 5’9 or 5’10 . . . rather copper color, remarkably handsome and genteel in his appearance. As this servant has had great privileges, he has no doubt accumulated considerable money, and will probably change his clothing. He wen [sic] without provocation and I have no doubt he has gone immediately to some free state.”

DeNeen L. Brown is an award-winning staff writer at The Washington Post who has covered night police, education, courts, politics and culture.
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