Uncovering the past: Exploring Black history in Frederick County

In Frederick County, Maryland, historical sites reveal the complex history of slavery on the border between North and South, the road to emancipation and the Jim Crow era.

Visitors have been touring the historic village of Catoctin Furnace for decades. Just 15 minutes outside of Frederick, Maryland, the site explores the history of a pre-Revolutionary village that manufactured iron for household tools and ammunition for nearly 125 years. While much is known about the integral role the village played in the state’s industrial development, stories about the enslaved Africans who worked there are still fighting to come to light.

“People think of slavery as [producing] tobacco, cotton, rice, or sugar,” said Elizabeth Comer, president of the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society. “But [Catoctin is] a rare example of the contribution of African Americans, both enslaved and free, to the industrial development of the United States.”

The simplest version of the nation’s history with slavery and the Civil War teaches that Southern states seceded from the Union, fought for their right to own slaves and lost. Even beyond the Civil War and Emancipation, Black history is often taught as a monolithic tale of struggle. But in border states like Maryland, the truth is much more complex.

Today, historical organizations in Frederick County, such as the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society, the Monocacy National Battlefield and the African American Resources, Cultural Heritage Society (AARCH) are showing visitors that the road to emancipation and freedom was longer than most people realize.

Uncovering Buried Histories

In 1979, only 10 miles from the southern border of Pennsylvania, construction of U.S. Route 15 unearthed a surprise: a previously unknown slave cemetery located near the Catoctin Furnace. Archeologists excavated 35 of the estimated 100 bodies, which were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution and the construction of the highway continued.

The cemetery, as well as the generations of enslaved people buried there, had largely gone undocumented, their stories forgotten. The history of the ironworkers had not previously been included in the tours at Catoctin, but in 2015, Maryland Heritage Areas Authority granted Comer and the historical society the funds to change that.

Today’s visitors can walk the African American Cemetery Trail, stretching approximately half a mile from the ruins of the historic furnace in Cunningham Falls State Park to an overlook near the cemetery site. Along the way, wayside panels tell the story of the highly skilled blacksmiths, colliers and forge men who worked in the furnace. Guests can also see the ruins of the furnace, alongside a reconstructed casting shed and a restored log cabin that housed workers and their families.

Although the cemetery sits on privately owned land, the overlook gives guests a contemplative space from which to view it, complete with a marker listing the confirmed first names of enslaved people at Catoctin and featuring a poem by Elayne Bond Hyman. Route 15 rumbles by in the distance.

“We want people to pause here,” Comer said. “Although it’s noisy, we point out in one of the waysides that this would’ve been a noisy place even 200 years ago because the cemetery is literally right beside the ore pit. Unfortunately, this was not a quiet private space where one could visit and be with their own thoughts or with their loved ones.”

Last July, the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society opened another addition to the village: The Museum of the Ironworker. The 600-foot exhibition area incorporates artifacts such as Catoctin Furnace-made stoves and cannonballs, as well as two forensic facial reconstructions, inspired by research into the cemetery remains and created in conjunction with StudioEIS and the Smithsonian. The reconstructions show a 35-year-old woman and a 15-year-old boy.

The Catoctin Furnace Historical Society continues research into the enslaved Africans that worked there, and Comer hopes that one day the list of names at the cemetery will be complete.

“I think audiences appreciate that we’re not whitewashing it anymore,” she said. “At Catoctin, we’re saying, ‘This is where, this is who was brought against their will, but this is what they accomplished, and now we want to find their descendants so that we can connect them with that legacy.’”

A Fight for Freedom

Twenty minutes south of Catoctin Furnace is the Monocacy National Battlefield, a site that played a role in both perpetuating — and eventually ending slavery.

In the early 1800s, the L’Hermitage plantation stretched across hundreds of acres along the Monocacy River near Frederick, Maryland. Ninety of the 108 plantation residents were enslaved human beings, making it the region’s largest enslaved population. The reason for the sizable population is unknown, but the site’s historians believe the owners might have rented enslaved people out to other farms, mills or industrial operations in the area.

“There’s a lot of misconception about how slavery was structured, and the fact is that there really is no structure,” says Tracy Evans, park ranger and head of education and visitor resources at Monocacy.

L’Hermitage plantation was sold by the original owners in the 1820s, its enslaved population diminishing through that decade. ts location soon played a key role in ending the systems of slavery from which the plantation profited.

In July 1864, Confederate military leaders made plans to capture Washington, DC and turn the tide of the Civil War in their favor. Fortunately, 6,000 Union soldiers assembled on the banks of the Monocacy River to stop them. On July 9, 1864, those forces held 15,000 Confederate soldiers off long enough for Union reinforcements to arrive at the nation’s capital. Because of e the outnumbered Union forces’ surprising success, the Battle of Monocacy became known as “The Battle That Saved Washington.”

Today, Monocacy National Battlefield includes several farms, buildings, mills and monuments that allow guests to debunk historical myths and explore the location’s complicated history with slavery. Covering more than 1,600 acres, there are 51 historic structures at the national park that help visitors picture farm life, including exhibits in the Tenant House that feature an original painting of what the enslaved village would’ve looked like at L’Hermitage.

Monocacy also offers six different walking trails that loop the farmland in the area, providing scenic views as well as details of the battlefield. One particular stop on the tours is the Monocacy Junction, where the United States Colored Troops recruiting station was established to encourage Black soldiers to join the fight for freedom.

People who tour Monocacy National Battlefield by car or foot are encouraged to enhance their visit with an online audio tour or battlefield maps found at the Visitors Center. Tourists will also find a museum inside the Visitors Center with exhibits that feature recovered Civil War military ID tags, period clothing, photos and archeology from L’Hermitage plantation.

As curator of the museum at Monocacy, Evans says the personal stories the artifacts tell are the most fascinating part of the work. “Our visitors really want to know about the whole story of the war, the people who were there and how they interacted with soldiers,” she said.

Tale of the Lion

When working on the Tenant House exhibits, Monocacy National Battlefield partnered with the African American Resources, Cultural Heritage Society (AARCH), asking members to weigh in on how to present the information about the slave village. AARCH, founded in 2009, is a local nonprofit dedicated to preserving and sharing the culture and the contributions of African Americans in Frederick County.

“It was a really fascinating project, and we had lots of interesting conversations about how people should be depicted,” Evans said. “They really wanted to show the agency of the African American people surviving and living on this land.”

AARCH is an organization that grew out of Frederick County’s efforts to produce a self-guided African American Heritage walking tour. The late William O. Lee, Jr., former teacher and alderman in the City of Frederick, always envisioned a permanent organization focused on local African American life and history. With the help of a strong community of volunteers, his dream became a reality.

Visitors looking for a deep dive into Black history should participate in AARCH’s hour-long walking tours of All Saints Street and the surrounding area. Participants learn about the cultural and historical importance of a neighborhood that was the center of the African American community up until the early 1960s.

“The tours open up more of a 360 view that school doesn’t teach you,” said Protean Gibril, who chairs the organization’s Growth and Development Committee. “There’s the Free Colored Men’s Library, the hospital; it’s almost like a little mini-Tulsa. People will see that they have been missing out on prime examples of resiliency.”

In addition to educating people about Black history, the AARCH makes a point to celebrate the community and allow Black Fredericktonians to tell their own history. In 2018, the organization filmed “The Tale of the Lion,” a documentary about the oldest African American citizens in Frederick County. Rose Chaney, a founding board member of AARCH and native of Frederick County, was integral in gathering interviewees for the film.

“My mother’s family is from Frederick and we can trace our roots back to my great-great-grandfather who was formerly a slave in Frederick County,” Chaney said. “Usually history is missing the African-Americans who lived it. [In the film,] they can tell about how it felt, and what they had to go through.”

AARCH also celebrates this elder generation at an annual Living Treasures banquet, taking the opportunity to honor and learn from their stories. The next step for the organization is building a Heritage Center, where they can host permanent exhibitions of local Black history and expand programming.

“Frederick is a prime example of anywhere in America, where our stories are buried and invisible,” said Gibril. “We need to take the time to bring them forth.”

Experience Black history firsthand. Plan your trip to Frederick County today.