Story at a glance
- St. Mary’s college is unveiling a new memorial commemorating the enslaved people of Southern Maryland.
- In 2016, the college discovered the remains of slave quarters on the campus during a construction project.
- The structure consists of a cabin framed with erasure poetry, including historic documents of slave advertisements.
When an excited member of her faculty came to the president of St. Mary’s College with slave shackles donated to the school, Tuajuanda C. Jordan paused, her heart heavy.
“You always know that there’s that history here,” said Jordan, the first Black woman to serve as president of St. Mary’s College of Maryland. But, “in my heart of hearts or naivete I had hoped that St Mary’s did not have an association with slavery.”
Then, in 2016, the college discovered the remains of slave quarters on campus during an archaeological dig ahead of constructing a new stadium.
“It was a sad day, but it also occurred to us that it was an opportunity to do something special because St. Marys does have an involvement with slavery,” she said. “It became clear to me that there was a piece of the narrative missing.”
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That piece will be revealed Nov. 21 during a virtual dedication of the new Commemorative to Enslaved Peoples of Southern Maryland. The memorial, titled "From Absence to Presence," features erasure poetry — when a poet takes existing text and erases or obscures portions of the text, creating a entirely new work from what remains — including historical documents related to the Mackall-Broome plantation, one of three known plantations near St. Mary's City on a structure inspired by "ghost frame" cabin architecture.
“It’s a deliberate invocation, a call to remember that there were those who walked this land before we did and that their lives should be memorialized, that their suffering should be understood, that their contributions should no longer be invisible,” said Garrey Dennie, an associate professor of African and African Diaspora studies.
The findings didn't come as a complete surprise to Julia King, a professor in the anthropology department, considering the history of the area. Many residents of Southern Maryland supported the Confederacy during the Civil War, despite the state siding with the Union, and the region had a sizable population of enslaved people in addition to a free Black population. About 20 miles north of St. Mary's is the historic Sotterley Plantation.
But not much was known about the lives of enslaved people in St. Mary's, which is known for being the birthplace of religious freedom, and the recent findings revealed a deeper diversity in the lives of enslaved people than previously understood.
"Slavery and enslavement had been erased from this landscape and this archeology actually jumpstarted that conversation in a way that became really productive," King said. "Slavery was really what underpinned the development of this region and there is no real monument, no real public monument" to enslaved people, she added.
The site, which appeared to be abandoned by the 1820s, also correlates with an interesting chapter of the country's history, according to King. During the War of 1812, British Admiral George Cockburn sailed along the East Coast near the British-occupied Chesapeake Bay, encouraging enslaved people to defect in return for their freedom. About 19 enslaved people from the St. Mary’s area reportedly defected, raising the possibility that these abandoned quarters were once their home.
“One way to think about it is that the archeology revealed with a kind of texture, things which we already knew but not in that level of detail,” said Dennie. “A crucial point is that to a significant degree the African American experience disappeared from the consciousness of following generations and the archeology revealed it.”
The structure, designed by Shane Allbritton and Norman Lee, incorporates poetry by Quenton Baker that includes language from slave property advertisements, runaway slave advertisements, newspaper articles and slave depositions of the Mackall-Broome family. At night, the words, etched in glass, will be illuminated by light from within the structure and the poetry will be projected onto the ground in a star-like pattern found on some of the ceramic artifacts recovered from the site.
“It is like nothing you have ever seen before, it's also like nothing you've ever seen in St. Mary’s County before,” said Jordan.
This year, the Black Lives Matter movement and demonstrations against police violence have reignited conversations around the country’s history of slavery. Now, after statues of racist slave owners and Confederate leaders were taken down around Maryland and the country, a memorial will go up, representing the millions of Africans torn from their homes and enslaved in the United States and other parts of the world.
"I hope that it makes people think about what does that mean for our history and how is this perpetuated in what goes on today and how can we compel the country to be better," said Jordan, pointing out the power of the memorial's design. "It is made out of polished steel. It reflects. It reflects yourself and history and makes you look at yourself."
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