Annapolis House Yields Clues to Hoodoo Mysteries

The hoodoo cache found in the Adams-Kilty House includes a pierced white disk, glass etched with a checkerboard pattern, a clear glass spindle, a red-glazed pottery fragment and an earthenware handle.
The hoodoo cache found in the Adams-Kilty House includes a pierced white disk, glass etched with a checkerboard pattern, a clear glass spindle, a red-glazed pottery fragment and an earthenware handle. (By Matthew M. Palus)
By Ray Rivera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Sifting through the debris of an 18th-century townhouse being renovated in Annapolis last month, the archaeologist and his students found what they were looking for under the brick floor near the kitchen hearth.

There, in a shallow five-inch pit, lay eight bent nails, a clear glass spindle, a plate of glass etched with a checkerboard design and a white pierced disk the size of a 50-cent piece.

What University of Maryland archaeologist Mark Leone and his team of students had discovered was evidence of hoodoo, a New World variant of ancient West African mystical traditions carried across the Atlantic by black slaves.

The practice, meant to influence healing and ward off misfortune, was continued well into the 20th century by freed descendants who lived and worked in the homes of wealthy white families as cooks, launderers and gardeners.

But Leone's research in Annapolis has raised an intriguing question: Scholars have yet to find hoodoo artifacts in homes owned and rented by the city's emerging black middle class in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In other words, while poorer blacks were keeping hoodoo alive, upwardly mobile African Americans were abandoning it.

"That's not to say that middle-class African Americans were giving up their African traditions, but they were finding different ways to express it," said Leone, who has led much of the research in Annapolis for the past 25 years,

The findings released last week add to the complex picture of black life in Annapolis and throughout the region in the decades before and after emancipation.

Hoodoo, which is practiced today, was widespread throughout the antebellum South.

Like other African-derived folk practices such as Santeria in Cuba and voodoo in Haiti, it mixed elements of Christianity with conjuring rituals involving herbs, dolls, pins and other everyday items bundled together as mojos worn on the body or buried in and around homes.

Frowned upon by Christian slave owners and later by white employers, the rituals were often conducted in secret -- what many scholars now see as a form of cultural resistance.

"In part you're talking about a sense of power and control," said Charles L. Perdue, who teaches folklore at the University of Virginia. "When you have no control over your destiny at all, anything you can do to increase the notion that you can exercise some power over your environment is a benefit to your psychic health."

Leone found the first inklings of hoodoo in Annapolis during an excavation in the early 1990s of the Charles Carroll House, home to a signer of the Declaration of Independence who had vast slave holdings.


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