EASTON — Some were the freed slaves of conscience-stricken Quakers. Others were freed by a sea captain in his will. Still others were freed by a slave midwife who bought freedom for herself and her family.
Together, here in Talbot County on the Eastern Shore, they may have given birth to what scholars suspect could be the oldest enclave of free African Americans, and possibly the oldest existing black neighborhood, in the country.
“It’s the oldest free black, African American neighborhood in the country that has been continuously inhabited and still in existence,” said Dale Green, an assistant professor in the Department of Architecture at Morgan State University.
The neighborhood is called “the Hill,” and for the past two weeks a team of archaeologists and anthropologists has been digging for its story in the back yard of the local women’s club.
Scholars think the Hill may predate, by several years, New Orleans’s famous neighborhood Treme, often described as the country’s oldest black community.
“In 1790, there were 410 free persons of color who lived on what we know as the Hill,” Green said this week — roughly twice the number who lived in Baltimore.
“The Hill had the largest concentration of free blacks in the Chesapeake region,” he said. “What you have in the name of the Hill is a real, rare, intact, continuously occupied and inhabited black neighborhood.”
Treme celebrated its bicentennial in 2012, though its founding is sometimes dated to 1810, and its roots likely go back further.
But Green said, “Treme is far younger than what we’re working with here.”
The project, a collaboration between, among others, Morgan State and the University of Maryland, started about four years ago with a study for the community of the history of the Hill’s black churches.
“When we finished that, they were like, ‘We hate to see you guys go,’ ” Green said. “That’s when they pull this card out, like, ‘You know, this neighborhood’s old.’ ”
“What’s ‘old’?” Green said the researchers asked.
The community members responded: “We don’t know. We want you guys to define how old ‘old’ is.”
Green, who grew up on the outskirts of the Hill, and his colleagues began to look.
“The thing about Talbot County is, it’s rich in history,” said Carlene Phoenix, president of Historic Easton, who lobbied for the neighborhood research. “But when it comes to especially African American history, it was always about slavery. But now we’ve got another story.”
The project researchers found that many Talbot County slaves were freed after the abolitionist Quaker preacher John Woolman came through Easton in 1766, urging fellow Friends to abandon slavery.
Easton sea captain Jeremiah Banning, who personally bought his 21 slaves in Senegal, freed them in his will.
And the researchers came upon the story of a slave, Grace Brooks, who purchased her freedom and that of her children and grandchildren with money she earned as a midwife.
Many of these now-free blacks probably made their way to the Hill, which was fast becoming an island of liberty surrounded by plantations, Green said.
At the dig site Wednesday, on the grounds of the Talbot County Women’s Club, experts and students dug into rectangular excavation pits, scraping away layers of dirt and scrutinizing soil color for clues to what might be buried.
Others used toothbrushes, a colander and a bucket of water to clean objects that had turned up. Many artifacts related to time periods later than the Hill’s birth period. But several finds grabbed the team’s attention.
One was a large, copper 1794 one-cent piece, bearing an image of “Lady Liberty” and a freedom cap. Such caps traditionally designated a slave’s emancipation, said U-Md. doctorate student Stefan Woehlke.
In this case, the cap signified U.S. freedom from Great Britain, Woehlke said at the dig site Wednesday. But he wondered: “Is it something that, to the free African American community, had a deeper significance than just the national independence from Britain?”
He was also intrigued that the coin was found in the 1850s soil layer. “It’s very interesting that we find this coin, so many years later, still in this neighborhood,” he said.
Another item of interest was a length of “nail stock” — a piece of metal that was used in the low-tech trade of nail making. That might be a job that recently freed slaves could have turned to, he said.
A third find was a large patch of oyster shells, which Woehlke said might have been used to nourish chickens.
“You’ve got a lot of unsung heroes here,” Green said. “Everybody knows about Frederick Douglass. He’s a household name. He’s a native son here. But well in advance of Frederick Douglass, we have persons like Grace Brooks.”
The former slave became so well regarded in Easton that she merited a rare obituary when she died in 1810, he said. She had earned enough money as an enslaved midwife, serving blacks and whites, that she could buy her freedom as well as her family’s.
She moved to the Hill in 1788 and bought a home. “She’s amazing, to be quite frank,” Green said.
The three-week dig here, which concludes Friday, was focused on a property where three anonymous African Americans lived, according to the U.S. Census of 1790, Green said.
“We knew that if we could get to this site, we could get to some earlier 1700s material culture,” he said.
But little is known about the trio.
“We don’t know if they were women,” Green said. “We don’t know if they were men. We just know they were free and they were black.”