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Unearthing Slavery, Finding Peace

John Blair (left) of College Park, MD and Audre Mass (right) of Towson University work on excavating a house on the Wye House site.
John Blair (left) of College Park, MD and Audre Mass (right) of Towson University work on excavating a house on the Wye House site. (Mark Gong - The Post)

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By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 21, 2006

Mary Tilghman watches from her window as archaeologists sift the earth of Wye House Farm, her Eastern Shore property. Buttons and an iron ring, pig bones and a broken spoon: Over three centuries, her family helped the growth of a new American economy and, on this plantation, built an empire on the backs of slaves.

This is where the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass lived for a couple of years, as a child slave of about 7. The work confirms his descriptions of the physical place to a fault, animating the landscape with his words: "Though crimes, high-handed and atrocious, may there be committed . . . it is, nevertheless . . . a most strikingly interesting place, full of life."

Tilghman welcomed this search of her land and family records. Now 87, the 11th-generation heir to Wye House has "always been interested in the history of this place," she said. But until now, the stories of hundreds of people who lived steps from her front door have lain under a carpet of emerald turf, their names stowed in boxes of family ledgers, with notes gauging their fitness for work.

Down the road, in the hamlet of Unionville, Harriette Lowery waits for her lost history to emerge from the clay and the files. The ancestors of Unionville once toiled at Wye House Farm, and some of their descendants work there today.

After the Civil War, Unionville was founded on plots granted by a sympathetic landowner. Lowery's cousin works in Tilghman's home, and Lowery sees nothing wrong in that. But she wants the generation coming up to know how things were long ago on that land, in all its detail, and to be proud.

It is a delicate business, this recovery of history. As scholars reassemble shards of lost memory, the white and black families of Wye House Farm work, as neighbors this time, toward an acceptance of their shared and painful past.

"Because of the way we got here, it's hard for us to say where we came from," Lowery said.

The research at Wye House, she said, "gives us a connection."

In shimmering heat this week, University of Maryland archaeologists crouched amid twisted tree roots, scraping away layers of soil. This place, they believe, was the Long Green, a mile-long stretch from the overseer's red cottage to the Wye River.

In the late 1820s, when Douglass lived here for two years, the Long Green was the 42,000-acre plantation's nerve center, "literally alive with slaves, of all ages, conditions and sizes," Douglass wrote. From the 1660s until emancipation, "the shoemaking and mending, the blacksmithing, cartwrighting, coopering, weaving, and grain-grinding, were all performed by the slaves on the home plantation," he wrote.

The archaeologists have exposed the foundations of several buildings and a collection of pins and thimbles, crockery, blown glass and washers and tools dating as far back as the 18th century.

The Lloyds, the plantation's early owners, like their contemporaries George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, led a group of wealthy planters who "were interested in a modern, scientific approach to farming," said Lisa Kraus, a university anthropologist searching the family papers. "They had shipping, distilleries, smoked meats, cattle, wool. . . . It wasn't a romantic, nice place to live. . . . It was a business."


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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