An Old Cabin in Maryland Has a Story to Tell

James F. Harley of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and Anna Holmes of the Brentwood Historical Society at the cabin.
James F. Harley of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and Anna Holmes of the Brentwood Historical Society at the cabin. (Photos By Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)
By Aruna Jain
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Richard Bergren always suspected there was something special about the old shack, entombed by poison ivy and brush, near his 1810 home on the old plantation off Molly Berry Road in Croom.

"Every time you walk out of the house, they kind of call to you, if you know what I mean," said Bergren, a college English professor and Civil War history buff. "It's kind of like, we've always felt that there are people on the land. We just have always felt that there's history, there's stories to be told and stories to be found out, and it's just not all told yet."

It took the prospect of a developer's bulldozer to reveal the whole story: that the shack was most likely a 19th-century home for a few of the thousands of slaves who labored in the tobacco fields of Prince George's County.

Its formal recognition as a rare archaeological find began when G. Sevag Balian, president of Haverford Homes in Hyattsville, became interested in a 116-acre portion of the plantation, where he plans to build a group of million-dollar "estate homes." When Balian's engineers began surveying the site, Bergren told them about what he thought was a slave cabin.

Balian hired a Greenbelt archaeological firm, Greenhorne & O'Mara. Their excavation uncovered bowl fragments, porcelain, stoneware, white ware and pipestems that date to the mid-19th century. A collapsed staircase is still inside the cabin.

Before the Civil War, slaves accounted for about 60 percent of the population in Prince George's. Many of their homes withered over the years or were demolished, especially as construction has boomed.

"It's really rare to find an intact slave cabin like this," said archaeologist Carrie Christman.

At a news conference yesterday at the site, Balian said Haverford would restore the cabin to its original condition, using historic materials.

Balian said he was aware of the cabin's other historic significance: It sits on the future site of homes that are likely to be purchased by some of the most affluent African American residents in Prince George's.

"I think there's an irony here, where you have a slave quarters that will be restored and surrounded by top-tier, predominantly African American buyers, executives who are looking for the large estate homes," he said.

Records trace ownership of the land to 1664, to Thomas and Baker Brooke. Through the generations it belonged to, among others, John Duvall, a merchant from Baltimore County, and Robert W. Bowie, son of a Maryland governor in the early 1800s. Then it came into the Berry family, from whom Balian bought it.

County Council member Marilynn Bland (D-Clinton) whose district includes Croom, read a slave roster from an inheritance record: "Aaron, 20 years old, 140 pounds; Frank, 11 years old, 75 pounds; Lucy, 4 years old, 25 pounds . . ."

"This little cabin behind me is the star of the show," Bland said. "African American slaves created most of this county with their bare hands."

Yesterday was clearly a big one for Bergren. He came to Balian's announcement wearing a replica of a Union Army uniform and carrying an 1865 vintage tenor horn, which he plays for the Federal City Brass Band in Baltimore.

"It's a very simple little building," he said. "But I think it's going to be a very important little building in how it's interpreted."

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