The discovery by anthropology professor Julia King and her students came just months after Jordan was informed by the school’s archivist that St. Mary’s College, which was founded in 1840, had once owned enslaved people. The news was heartbreaking, said Jordan, who is Black and has led the college since 2014.
“The history of St. Mary’s College has always been very forward-thinking and relatively progressive and somehow, in my heart of hearts, I had hoped we had no hand in slavery,” Jordan said in an interview Thursday. “When I discovered that, I was sad and depressed.”
After the artifacts, including clay pipes and broken pottery, were uncovered, Jordan said she immediately knew she wanted to do something to honor these individuals whose existence had long been covered by dirt and hidden from history’s lens.
She began working with administrators, professors and students as well as residents and government officials of historic St. Mary’s City and nearby communities to agree on a suitable memorial project to pay tribute to the people who had lived and toiled in captivity all their lives. The fruit of that four-year-long effort was realized Saturday morning when the college unveiled “From Absence to Presence: The Commemorative to Enslaved Peoples of Southern Maryland.”
The memorial, which takes the form of an enclosed cabin on which poetry and the names of enslaved people are cut through metal panels, sits on the soil where the artifacts were found. At night, a light inside the cabin spills the words and names onto the surrounding lawn, an ethereal effect that allows the stories of these lost lives to finally emerge from the shadows. Behind the cabin are the new stadium and sports fields whose site was relocated after the discovery was made.
In Saturday’s virtual ceremony hosted on the school’s website, students, school officials, local community leaders and politicians spoke about the project and their hopes that it will be a fertile site for reflection and resolve. Writer and historian Jelani Cobb delivered the keynote address.
The project honors “the triumph of the human spirit over the cruelty of slavery,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said, and “provides a new and meaningful way for Marylanders to learn about the complex legacy of slavery in our state.”
The speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, Adrienne A. Jones, U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, and U.S. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, all Democrats, also delivered remarks. All but $50,000 of the project’s $550,000 cost was paid for by the state of Maryland.
Baltimore Mayor-elect Brandon Scott, a 2006 graduate of the school, said having the memorial at St. Mary’s is part of a much broader effort that America needs to engage in to address its past.
“We are still dealing with the fallout of enslavement of my ancestors, the trauma that is passed down through generations,” Scott said in his remarks. The memorial can help provide “understanding that the situations that African Americans live in today’s United States of America are directly connected to what our ancestors went through. . . . This moment is the moment for us to finally start to reckon with that, reconcile and put things on a better path for the generations to come.”
Designed by Shane Allbritton and Norman Lee of RE:site, their Houston-based design firm, the memorial was created as a work of immersive public art with the idea of prompting dialogue among the people who see it. Twenty-two feet long, 15 feet wide and 18 feet high, the imposing cabin is encircled by a path on which visitors can walk and read the names and poetry on panels of polished stainless steel in which they also see their reflection.
“We want people to ask questions and think about how they fit into the history of this story,” Allbritton said in an interview. “It’s reflecting the current world as it is but it has this ghostly quality to it that you can also see. We hope that people can experience this and examine themselves in the greater context of American history and perhaps become engaged with someone else who has another viewpoint.”
Allbritton and Lee worked with Seattle erasure poet Quenton Baker who pored over 198 old Maryland newspaper advertisements about runaway slaves. He then removed — or erased — some of the words from the original ads to create poetry from the words that remained.
“You’re looking at an ad about a person, but it’s about property. The language that is used in these ads is so devastating,” Baker said in an interview. “The work for me is how can I brush away all these layers of terror and obliteration to arrive at something that allows for storytelling? How do I create a sense of possibility out of this language of profound foreclosure?”
The words reclaimed from the runaway slave ads paint an unsparing picture:
“Lost to the mad sting of winter
Lost to sharp teeth in the neck
Lost to the deformity of ownership”
But there is also resilience expressed in the words that stretch across epochs:
“Pay us in endeavor
Pay us in living remembrance”
While the specifics of who lived in the enslaved households discovered at St. Mary’s College remains unknown, the school’s president said the project will help instill a deep connection to their presence on the campus. When she saw the memorial for the first time and read the names and the words on its walls, tears came to her eyes.
It also brought her renewed resolve.
On a visit she made alone to the cabin earlier this month, Jordan remembers thinking to herself that the country has come a long way, but it has not come far enough.
“My ancestors were enslaved and now I’m president of a primarily White institution and that’s significant,” she said. “But if you look at all the stuff that people of color endure, there are a lot of things that have not changed. And so when I see this memorial, I’m more inspired and motivated than ever to try to compel this country to be better.”