If you really want to start at the beginning, the idea for a living history farm that would re-create slavery traces years back to Anthony Cohen's curiosity over a single question:
How did a man with skin the color of chocolate end up with a name as Jewish as Cohen?
Between the question and the idea, there's quite a story. Not just about one person's search for his roots, but about the legacy of those roots in present-day America and the challenge of moving past the most difficult part of that legacy. Not just for their inheritor, but for the rest of the country, too.
And that's where an unadorned farmhouse in Germantown comes in.
Sometime next year, the nonprofit organization that Cohen founded and runs, the Menare Foundation, plans to begin a unique project at the 40-acre site in Seneca Creek State Park. It will take visitors back in time and expose them to the daily life of slavery, circa 1850, in Montgomery County.
The endeavor, geared to school classes and civic groups, will be the training stage for an even more ambitious drama. Cohen wants to restore a dilapidated plantation in an isolated northern corner of the county and use it, along with its slave quarters and crop fields, for a total immersion experience in that searing chapter of history.
Controversial projects they are. After some early publicity this year, a Gaithersburg woman protested that she was appalled by such plans and questioned how much of the past would be resurrected. An overseer beating the field slaves? Shackles on slaves' hands and feet?
Cohen replied that physical abuse would not be acted out. But other realities, including slave auctions and slaves' desperate breaks for freedom, would.
"We view slavery as the story of the survival and triumph of the human spirit, in the face of centuries of oppression," he wrote back. Yet without understanding firsthand the experiences of those who lived through it, how else to finally get beyond what he calls "America's longest held fear, longest held anger, longest held obsession" and everything that still flows from it?
He has faith, he explained this week. "I have a belief that history reveals itself in the time when people are prepared to deal with it," he said.
Cohen, 39, who grew up in the Kemp Mill area, is a historian by academic and professional training. But he doesn't just talk the talk. Twice in the late 1990s, he walked the walk -- for months as he followed two different routes of the Underground Railroad.
It was the same journey tens of thousands of slaves, and at least one of his forebears, had taken to escape their bondage during the first half of the 19th century.
His first trip started in Sandy Spring, where the Quaker community undoubtedly provided many with shelter and protection. It ended nearly a thousand miles later in Amherstburg, Ontario. Along the way, he folded himself into a small wood crate and had himself smuggled from Philadelphia to New York, much like a runaway slave named Henry "Box" Brown of Virginia once had done, shipping himself from Virginia to Philadelphia in 1849.
The trek attracted much attention, highlighting the secret network that linked safe houses, way stations, waterways and wilderness trails. The fugitives who entrusted their lives to it were men and women who traveled mostly by night, using the North Star as their guide. Cohen's own time on the road, though exhausting and emotionally draining, proved to him the value of experiential research.
"There is a perception about slavery," he said, "and then there's a cellular knowledge."
He returned from his second trip to start the foundation, initially to identify and preserve what is left of the "railroad" and to educate people today of its significance. He found the word "menare" in a journal that was part of 1930s Works Progress Administration interviews of former slaves; it was a password used along the way to signal assistance and safety. In old Italian, he's been told, it means to lead or guide.
Cohen wants it to be a pass code today "for accessing history."
The organization has been peripatetic since its 1999 incorporation. Its current office is on the second floor of the Waters House in Germantown, an ornately styled farmhouse more than two centuries old.
"It was, 'One thing stumbled onto another stumbled onto another' and here we are," Cohen said with a smile.
Here the foundation's extensive printed collection on slavery and abolitionism is finally unpacked. Here, too, Cohen and supporters continue the planning for the Button farm property in Seneca Creek State Park, where late last month volunteers scraped, scrubbed, hauled, mowed and raked. They have extensive work to do before crops can be planted in the spring and artisans have a place to carry out period-true chores such as spinning, coopering and tanning. An authentic slave cabin from Frederick County is to be moved to the site, which the foundation will lease from the state through the Department of Natural Resources resident-curator program.
Given the organization's nascent profile and funding, these plans might be seen as speculative. The anticipated costs of the two projects is more than $3 million, and the foundation is now seeking grant money and other financial support. Those who know Cohen say that if anyone can pull it all off, he can.
A slender, bookish-looking man who makes his living as a lecturer and consultant, he combines articulate passion with an impressive depth of knowledge in history. He constantly challenges assumptions, as he did numerous years ago when he joined the Maryland chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He met the chief eligibility requirement -- that an ancestor had fought for the South. He became the chapter's first and only black member, for which he was hailed and pilloried.
"Tony is a very unusual individual, with an innate ability to reach people of diverse backgrounds . . . to bring people together, which is sorely needed these days," said chapter leader Patrick J. "Rick" Griffin III.
Gary Silversmith, a Washington lawyer and collector of presidential memorabilia, including the former presidential yacht Sequoia, has known Cohen for years and chairs his board. "I have an unbelievable amount of respect for him and what he's doing . . . preserving a historic part of America's past" in singular fashion, Silversmith said.
If anything, Cohen's work presaged the increasing national attention to the Underground Railroad. "He certainly brought it to the fore," said James Sorensen, the archaeologist for Montgomery's Park and Planning Commission and another admirer of Cohen.
Indeed, Cohen's latest ideas dovetail with ideas of the Montgomery County Heritage Area Advisory Committee to raise the county's historic profile. His mission also tracks that of the National Park Service's National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act, which has helped highlight sites through commemorative programs, as well as the state tourism office, which is working to develop heritage trails throughout Maryland. A meeting in January will bring officials together to discuss plans for the state's Underground Railroad trail.
Yet Cohen's ultimate plan, for a slavery-immersion experience, may be the chanciest undertaking. The targeted site is tucked within Patuxent River State Park, hard against the Howard County border. Even in late fall, with the trees bare and fields stripped, the 180-year-old stone house that would become Cohen's plantation central is visible only to those who know where to look. Hidden deeper still is the centuries-old quarters where a slave family once lived. The modern world -- telephone poles, electricity lines, paved roads -- appears to have vanished.
The five-day program Cohen envisions would immerse participants only for 48 hours. But those hours would be complete in sights, sounds and feel, a kind of "sensory hazing" with none of the glossy patina of a historic Williamsburg. He put television host Oprah Winfrey through just such an experience before she took on the slave character of Sethe in the 1998 movie "Beloved." She collapsed after less than a day, overcome by the intensity of Sethe's world. She later described the encounter as an epiphany. Cohen believes others will want to also test themselves and confront their own parameters of thinking.
"Most people want a transforming experience in their life," he said. "By waking people up before sunrise and putting them to work for just one day, it's going to talk far more to them than what any Hollywood film would do. Because what people will get from it, if we do it right, is that this was a lifetime."
The site would be leased from the state under terms of restoration and preservation. Ross Kimmel, supervisor of cultural resources management for the Maryland Forest and Park Service, is more than intrigued. "I think controversy's fine if you're prompting public discussion, getting people to think" about an issue, he said.
Amid all this, Cohen is not done walking. In 2004, his next and likely last trip will attempt to discern the path his great-great-granduncle took from Savannah, Ga., to Canada -- and to freedom -- in 1851.
Which brings the story back to the question that started it all: How did Anthony Cohen's family come by its last name? Though long curious, Cohen didn't ask that aloud until 1989, when he called his father's father in California to start probing.
He learned that his great-grandfather had been born in Philadelphia during the Civil War, had been orphaned, then adopted by a Jewish family in Wilmington. He traced other lineage, too, and came up with an equally surprising past. His father's mother's family came from generations of Jews in Savannah, who had arrived from western Europe by boat in the early 18th century. Their descendants had fought in the Revolutionary War and on both sides of the Civil War. One had linked with a freed black woman and she had his child.
It's both his history -- and his future.
"It's led me on an amazing journey," Cohen said.