“They wanted to show that however painful, this was part of our history,” said Jan Briscoe, a descendant of the last family to own slaves at Sotterley, which is in St. Mary’s County.
Sotterley has a recently restored slave cabin on the property.
It has a dirt floor, a simple pallet bed and low stairs leading to an attic space, alongside plaques that help visitors imagine life for an estimated dozen people in the tiny space, about 16 by 18 feet.
On Aug. 23, Sotterley will host a remembrance day, including a public reading of the names of those enslaved at the plantation, as well as a bell-ringing to honor those who died at the plantation and on the boat voyage getting to this country, said Nancy Easterling, executive director of Historic Sotterley, the nonprofit group that operates the site.
For almost 300 years, Sotterley, a historic home on a hill overlooking the Patuxent River, was known to the public as a quiet working tobacco plantation and farm in the fertile tidewater land adjacent to the Chesapeake Bay. It was notable for its continuous years as a working farm, owned by just four families in its long history. At its height, in the late 1700s, the plantation spanned 7,000 acres.
It was a tobacco farm until the mid-20th century, and after that a sheep and hay farm, as well as a country retreat for the wealthy families that owned it. In the early 1960s, Mabel Satterlee Ingalls, a descendant of an earlier owner, opened the property to the public as a museum that showcased the main home as a historic site, run by the Sotterley Mansion Foundation.
The slave cabin sat down the hill from the plantation house, and for many years it was not part of the tour.
The tour guides would skip over the fact that the farm had used slave labor, Briscoe said. Tour groups were not told that as many as 93 enslaved people were recorded at Sotterley in 1791, she said.
That narrative began to change in the 1970s when Agnes Kane Callum, a Baltimore woman and an avid genealogist, discovered that her grandfather was born enslaved at that property in 1860.
Starting in the 1970s, Callum, who has since died, would bring family and friends to the site to show them where the Kane family had been enslaved, including a tiny cabin down the hill from the main house, where her ancestors most likely lived. The cabin was a rarity, she told them, because it was still standing.
But the unpainted slave cabin had rotten exterior planks, a deteriorating chimney and fireplace, and a leaking roof.
Callum’s son, Martin Callum, recalled that when his mother discovered her family’s connection to the land, she had taped up a giant sheet of paper on her living room wall with the details of their family tree.
“To know that history, and to see my mother unfold it piece by piece, was sometimes overwhelming,” said Martin Callum, 68. “I don’t think she had a clue that it was going to blossom the way it did.”
Fast forward to 1994, and John Hanson Briscoe, a descendant of Sotterley’s last slave-owning family, joined the Sotterley board. That’s when he met Agnes Kane Callum, who was still regularly visiting the property, giving friends and relatives tours of her family history.
Briscoe, the former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates who has since died, had himself grown up in nearby Leonardtown, with its “legacy of discrimination,” said his daughter, Jan Briscoe.
But John Briscoe, who had also been a St. Mary’s County Circuit Court judge, was involved in helping to pass some early civil rights legislation in Maryland, his daughter said. Briscoe voted in 1964 for Maryland’s first Civil Rights Act, when he served in the Maryland legislature.
Briscoe and Callum connected, and decided that one way to preserve the site’s legacy was to tell the story of all the people who lived at Sotterley. They used their newfound alliance to get Sotterley named a National Historic Landmark in 2000.
Jan Briscoe said it was the first time her family “had really considered its connection to slavery.” Until then, it wasn’t something they were willing to face or speak of, she said.
John Briscoe died in 2014, and Callum in 2015, but their descendants — Jan Briscoe and Martin Callum — serve on the board of Historic Sotterley, helping to preserve it.
Sotterley has a descendants’ registry that gathers the names of those who were enslaved, worked on or owned the property since its founding in 1703. To date, more than 200 people have noted their connection to the place.
Briscoe and Callum say the restoration of the cabin, which started in 2009 with a grant from the 1772 Foundation, is part of the living legacy they are most proud of bringing back.
The fragile pine-log slave cabin, built around 1830, was restored to look like it might have during the 1850s. The $30,000 grant replaced the roof, aging doors and much of the exterior wood, repaired interior walls, chimney and fireplace, and regraded the land outside the cabin.
The restored cabin opened to the public in 2017 and was dedicated in honor of Agnes Kane Callum. The property also has an exhibit that describes the working farm, and lists the names of the enslaved people who lived there.
Just last year, Jeanne Pirtle, Sotterley’s education director, discovered documentation that Sotterley was one of the ports on the Atlantic coast where enslaved people first touched land after their voyage across the ocean, meaning Sotterley had served as a site for the Middle Passage.
Some 218 enslaved Africans arrived on the Generous Jenny, a ship that landed at Sotterley Plantation in 1720, she said. At least 29 enslaved people died on that voyage, and the survivors were either bought directly from the ship, or sent farther inland to be sold, Easterling said.
“We always knew the enslaved people had come here by boat,” Easterling said. “But we had assumed they landed at a larger port first. Not in this case.”
Because of that, the UNESCO Slave Route Project designated Sotterley as one of 31 Middle Passage arrival locations in the United States, and will hold a remembrance day Aug. 23 to mark the 400th year since enslaved people arrived in Jamestown.
The UNESCO designation reinforces that sites such as Sotterley “have an incredibly powerful and important” story to tell, Easterling says.
Sotterley also invites school groups for visits and donates thousands of pounds of produce — potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini and other vegetables — from its working farm to food pantries throughout the area.
Most of the exhibits, events and renovations at Sotterley hark back to Agnes Kane Callum’s work, Jan Briscoe said. In addition to Callum’s son Martin serving on the board, her daughter, Martina Callum, also served.
“They’re trying to keep their mother’s legacy going,” Briscoe said. “We owe her a huge debt.”
Correction: This article incorrectly said that the former slave cabin at Sotterley Plantation was believed to be the only such cabin open to the public in Maryland. In fact, there are several.