Usually the Rev. Cynthia Snavely knows a little more about the person whose funeral she presides over. As she stood over a gray coffin in an open field in Upper Marlboro on Saturday afternoon, all she knew about the man she had been asked to eulogize was that he lived long ago, he was African American and he probably had been a slave who worked on the tobacco plantation that once surrounded his grave.
But for Snavely and several dozen onlookers who were there to pay their respects, the chance to draw closer to a distant yet seminal chapter of American history was enough.
“We don’t know this man,” Snavely said. “But he walked this ground before us. He is one of the ancestors of this place. And as we live here now, he is our ancestor.”
After Snavely finished, Chris Fuller, 64, who was standing on the other side of the coffin, stepped forward, placed a hand on it, and held the hand there for a few seconds.
“I just feel a connection,” he said. “As African Americans, our history is very muted, having been robbed of it for so long. Unfortunately there are a lot of gaps. I am grateful to learn anything.”
Fuller has lived nearby for eight years and said he had often wondered about the dilapidated house and surrounding fields where the remains of the African American man were discovered by a developer in 2003. The bones were turned over to Prince George’s County police, who arranged the reinterment. A local funeral home donated the coffin. Another business provided a burial vault.
The house, listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Clagett House at Cool Spring Manor, was built around 1830 by William Digges Clagett, who ran a plantation on 297 acres surrounding it until he lost the land after the Civil War.
County police brought in archaeologists who used radar to search for areas where soil had been disturbed. They determined that the remains were part of a small cluster of at least 13 graves probably belonging to slaves and freedmen who lived and worked on the property, county police said. It is located not far from the site of former slave quarters and is bounded by a swath of woods. On the other side of the tree line is another small burial ground for whites.
Forensic analysis by the Smithsonian Institution discovered that the unidentified African American had a back injury, ate a diet high in protein and smoked a clay pipe.
He could have been a slave. He could also have been a free man, or both, at different points in his life, Snavely noted in her eulogy.
Census records show that in 1840, Clagett owned 39 slaves, said Jennifer Stabler, an archaeologist with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Stabler also found ads that Clagett ran in local newspapers at the time, offering a reward for a runaway slave named Joe, who “has lost two of his toes nearest to his large toe, I think, from his right foot.”
Could the man in the coffin possibly be Joe? It is impossible to know. There were censuses taken of slaves on the plantation, Stabler said, but no names were listed. Only gender and age. And Clagett did not leave a journal or other record that might shed more light on the identity of the clay pipe smoker.
After the ceremony, the crowd slowly made its way to the Clagett house, which is being painstakingly restored by a California couple, one of whom grew up down the street. They led small groups on tours of the interior of the house, the upkeep of which drove away the previous owner, a developer who had planned on dotting the now 10-acre property with large houses.
People had a hard time leaving. There were so many unanswered questions. Snavely in her eulogy wondered aloud: “Did he hunt? Did he trap? Did he raise some chickens? Did he go in with the neighbors to buy a hog?”
“It is stunning how little we know,” she said.
For Cynthia Perkins of Northeast Washington, who came with her 79-year-old mother, the absence of such details only heightened her curiosity.
“Were his parents here? When he passed away, what was he doing that day? Even though it’s a closed casket, we can use our imagination,” she said. “We don’t know who that is so he can be whoever we want him to be.”