It is a blustery, rainy day of Miles River Neck and the oil burning stove in Joseph Sutton's small house is working overtime.
Sutton, 94, son of an Eastern Shore slave, is probing the limits of his memory. His mind wanders back 60, 70, 80 years, past the turn of the century into the 1800s. Slowly, carefully and deliberately he begins to talk of his childhood, adolescence and young manhood in the late 19th and early 20th centuries on Miles River Neck, 15,000 acres of rural Talbot County bordered by the Miles and Wye rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
Seated next to him, quietly taking notes, is Shepard Krech III, a George Mason University anthropologist educated at Oxford, Yale and Harvard. In the past two years, Krech and Sutton have spent more than 80 hours talking , and the transcript of their conversations fills more than 2,000 pages.
Their conversations are drawn from Sutton's recollections of relatives' descriptions of slave days, planting corn and tomatoes, the hard times of the post slavery era, oystering on the Bay, land transactions and family genealogies, lynchings as late as the early 1930s, family feuds, fishing and hunting.
Sometime next year an edited version of their conversations will be published in a book tentatively entitled, "Praise the Bridge that Carries You Over," an effort that Krech described as "giving history back to the people."
"You could argue that this is a kind of social history," observed Krech. "It is the history of ordinary people, and it is local history from a black point of view.You can read a lot of local histories and usually they are important as ideological statements of the people who have written them.
"But there has not been any place you can turn to for a black version of the history of the Eastern Shore. Here we have attached to events the significnace that a black man sees in them.
"There was a time when historians argued that you couldn't write history without documents. All history was political history. They looked down on oral history."
The son on an Easton physician, Krech too lived as a boy on Miles River Neck, but his world was light years away from Joseph Sutton's. As a youth he was sent away to school, first to Landon and then to Groton, where he prepared for Yale. Sutton has been one of Dr. Krech's patients, but Krech and Sutton knew each other only slightly.
Krech did anthropological studies for his disseration at Harvard in the subarctic regions of Canada's Northwest Territories before coming to George Mason in 1975, and wanted to do similar work involving rural blacks.
Miles River Neck seemed as good a place as any to start. For a time, it had been the home of the 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who spent part of his youth as a slave of the chief overseer on the estate of Edward Lloyd, the principal landholder in the area.
The major landholding and slaveholding family on Miles River Neck from the 17th through the 19th centuries, the Lloyds owned more than 7,000 acres by the mid 1850s -- almost half the land on the Neck -- and 275 slaves. Although Talbot County had isolated pockets of Union sentiment in the days immediately before the Civil War, the large slaveholding population was predominantly pro-Southern.
Throughout the 1850s, slave trading was a thriving business in Easton, the seat of Talbot County just across the river from Miles River Neck, and slaves were bought and sold in the marketplace there. The final public sale of slaves took place in August 1863, just 14 months before the emancipation of slaves in Maryland in November 1864.
But Sutton also remembers stories told of Union Army Recruiters enlisting Talbot County blacks to fight for the North during the war and how those returning to Miles River Neck after the war settled on land sold or rented to them by a handful of whites.
By the mid 1880s two all-black settlements, Unionville and Cooperville, named after Sutton's uncle, John Copper, had been established on the Neck. In October 1885 Sutton was born in Copperville.
Setting out on his project, Krech sought a half dozen elderly black residents of Miles River Neck, Sutton among them. It soon became apparent that Sutton had a remarkable memory with a good grasp of historical details reaching back into the 19th century.
His recollections of land transactions, of who bought property where and from whom, were checked against -- land records in the county courthouse and the records verified Sutton's accounts.
His version of family genealogies were checked against census data, and they too were verified. In addition, there are 40 reels of Lloyd family correspondence on file with the Maryland Historical Society against which to check Sutton's accounts.
"We checked what Mr. Sutton said and it turned out to be right on target," said Krech.
Supported by a small foundation grant, Krech and Sutton began their conversations in the summer of 1976, and they continued off and on for most of the next two years.
"The old 19th century dictum that in the absence of written documents there can be no history is no longer tenable, although it dies hard," said Krech in a paper presented earlier this month at a conference on Ethnic Heritages and Eastern Shore Roots at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore campus in Princess Anne.
"The collection of oral testimony is legitimate historiography. There are demonstrated correspondences between oral data on the one hand and geological, archeological, genealogical and other forms of documentary evidence on the other.
"This type of research quite literally gives history back to the people who make history, yet who too readily become forgotten in the plethora of so-called important names and dates. It is my modest hope that there will be recognition on the Eastern Shore and Maryland that Mr. Sutton's version of history is as valid as any other historical study of this area."