By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 21, 2006; B01
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."
Wye Farm was also, according to Douglass's writings, a "full 300 years behind the age, in all that relates to humanity and morals."
Kraus hopes by next summer, after combing through 400 boxes of Lloyd family journals, letters and ledgers and examining oral histories from landowners and slave descendants, to assemble "a history that speaks to all those different perspectives."
She has found lists of scant rations and inventories of slaves whose names match those of families in Unionville and nearby Coppersville. She has read evidence of runaways and slaves exiled to plantations in the Deep South. But she has also read about efforts to keep slave families together.
"I'm trying to take as many cues from Douglass's work as we can," she said. "The Tilghmans know that, and they haven't kicked me off their property."
Mary Tilghman opened the kitchen entry to what Douglass called the "Great House" one recent afternoon, asking, "You don't mind coming in the back door?"
Tilghman inherited the place, now 1,300 acres and still in production, from an aunt in 1993.
She describes her ancestors as Welsh Puritans who were "autocratic, in a way" but schooled in the liberal philosophy that underpins American democracy.
That they were arguably the state's largest slave owners, she said, is "one of the very tricky questions."
It's a part of the past she rejects, but "neither do I think my ancestors, who practiced an evil practice, were wicked people."
For at least two decades, Douglass's descendants, the Bailey family, have had reunions in the shadow of the pale yellow estate house. Tilghman frequently opens her farm to her black neighbors, who, out of politeness, do not call it "a plantation," Lowery said. "I don't think people want to conjure up bad memories on both sides."
Unionville runs along two country roads, a stretch of old houses punctuated by low-income housing. Unionville was founded after the Civil War by 18 black Union soldiers. At St. Stephens AME Church, on July 29, the archaeologists will meet privately with residents to tell them what they've found.
Lowery, 55, whose great-great-grandfather Benjamin Demby was one of the town's founders, said they wanted "to be free, to live freely and take care of their families and practice their religion. Dwelling on the past was not part of it."
At some point, Lowery and some of her neighbors decided that they ought to remember a bit more about what brought them all there.
In 2003, they organized a committee and appealed to the county for a statue of Douglass to be put up outside the Talbot County courthouse, where Douglass spoke as a freeman. "There's a monument in Paris, but none in his home county," Lowery said. There was a "big fight" that she called "shocking, shocking, shocking," but in the end, county officials agreed, with a few stipulations. Among them, she said: Any new statue could not stand taller than the "Talbot Boys," a monument to local men who served in the Confederate Army.
The Unionville community is still raising money to erect the monument.
When the University of Maryland archaeologists visited the church one Sunday last year, asking what Unionville would like to learn from a dig at the Wye place, most people said "history . . . that shows the strength and courage of those who lived then," Lowery said. "We want to keep passing that on.
The Tilghmans, she said, "have a strong sense of history themselves, and they understand that it needs to be shared.
"There may be people who wouldn't like me to use this word, but I'm grateful to them for doing it."
Tilghman calls the work on her land the university's "baby." As for her hospitality, she said it is simply that. "This is a small community. Everybody knows everybody down here."