Bernie Demczuk stands in front of the Wye House with Beverly Tilghman, whose ancestors owned Frederick Douglass when he was enslaved as a boy on the Wye Plantation in Talbot County, Md. (Courtland Milloy/The Washington Post/Courtland Milloy/The Washington Post)
Columnist

During a recent driving tour of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Bernie Demczuk pulled into a long, tree-lined driveway in Talbot County and parked in front of a mansion called the Wye House.

Beverly Tilghman welcomed us inside and gave a brief history of her family. They had come from Wales in 1659, built the house in 1790 and, over the years, accumulated 40,000 acres of farmland and more than 700 enslaved black men, women and children to work it. Among them was a boy who would eventually escape the bonds of slavery and become a world-renowned abolitionist named Frederick Douglass.

“Frederick Douglass lived here from ages six to nine,” Tilghman said. “He was owned by one of the overseers and walked 12 miles to this property as a young boy with his grandmother, who turned him over and left.”

Once there, his home would become a storage closet in the kitchen of another slave, a cook.

For Demczuk, who teaches African American history at the District’s School Without Walls, the Wye House was just one of his many classrooms on the Eastern Shore. The birthplace of Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman in nearby Bucktown was another, along with Unionville, a community founded by black people in the early 1700s.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture opens its doors to the public on Sept. 24. Here’s a look at the numbers behind the 19th Smithsonian museum. (claritza jimenez/The Washington Post)

“I don’t want to sit in an office or just stand in a classroom all day,” the public schoolteacher said. “I want to teach like this. I bring my students here all the time.”

As the National Museum of African American History and Culture prepares for its grand opening this weekend, Demczuk is hoping that visitors will be inspired to go outside those walls and see where the treasured history occurred, discover the actual places where the celebrated culture originated.

“Just drive somewhere, get out of your car and start talking to people,” Demczuk said.

But for those who are unable to roam far, the new museum should provide a starting point.

Demczuk has proposed that D.C. public school students — from sixth to 12th grade — spend at least one day a year touring the museum. Other schools in the metropolitan area could also take advantage of the astonishing new resource. Despite the region’s rich history, too little of it gets taught in school.

“I ask my students if they know who Georgetown was named for,” Demczuk said. “They say George Washington. I say, no, it’s named for King Georges I, II and III, who were the largest slave traders in history, having stolen 4 million Africans between them.”

He also reminds them that Washington, D.C., was named for George Washington, who owned slaves, and Christopher Columbus, “who invented the Atlantic slave trade,” and that Alexandria, Va., was named for John and Philip Alexander, the two largest slave traders in Northern Virginia.

“So our heritage, our whole concept of who we are as a people, a nation, comes out of this thing called slavery, and we don’t even want to study it, we want to ignore it, not teach it,” Demczuk said.

“I’ve argued that one of the reasons old black Washington is so upset with these white millennials that are moving into their neighborhoods is not because they are young and white but because they lack appreciation,” he continued. “Black people have been struggling to make a place in the city for 150 years and here you come with blinders and earplugs, not speaking, not seeing, not appreciating.”

He believes the new African American History Museum will go a long way in helping to increase awareness and appreciation.

Tilghman and her husband, Richard, inherited the Wye House in 1993. Not long afterward, they began allowing archaeologists from the University of Maryland and Morgan State University to explore the property.

“I’ll say that we have learned a lot about ourselves,” she said. “It has been heartwarming and also sad. A family member of one of our good friends from Unionville was beaten to death on this property, and that’s a hard thing to take. But the two of us have sat down, discussed it, tried to accept it in the hope of being able to work through it.”

But what about those who say that slavery was in the past, that we should just move on and forget it?

“I think it’s all of our jobs to make sure we move forward,” Tilghman said. “Saying, ‘I wasn’t here,’ or, ‘It’s not my fault,’ is just a way of closing yourself in. You can’t do that. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Demczuk added, “We can’t heal until we can talk. There is no redemption, no restorative justice, until we can sit down, over a piece of bread, and talk.”

As he left the Wye House, he explained, “That’s why I teach. To get my students talking.”

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.