Plantation Dig Reveals Md. Town's Painful Past

Wye Plantation i i

Wye House Farm, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, was originally settled in the 1650s and grew to cover 20,000 acres. Thousands were enslaved there. Sarah Mobley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Sarah Mobley, NPR
Wye Plantation

Wye House Farm, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, was originally settled in the 1650s and grew to cover 20,000 acres. Thousands were enslaved there.

Sarah Mobley, NPR
Archeological dig at Wye Plantation i i

University of Maryland students excavating Wye House Farm have unearthed buttons, beads, pottery shards and the remains of buildings. Sarah Mobley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Sarah Mobley, NPR
Archeological dig at Wye Plantation

University of Maryland students excavating Wye House Farm have unearthed buttons, beads, pottery shards and the remains of buildings.

Sarah Mobley, NPR
Overseer's quarters at the Wye House Plantation i i

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote about a cruel slave overseer named Mr. Severe who lived in this cottage, at the end of a large green where slaves worked. Sarah Mobley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Sarah Mobley, NPR
Overseer's quarters at the Wye House Plantation

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote about a cruel slave overseer named Mr. Severe who lived in this cottage, at the end of a large green where slaves worked.

Sarah Mobley, NPR

In 1824, on the humid lowlands of Maryland's Eastern Shore, a small, black child walking with his grandmother passed a plantation house and entered a stretch of land called the Long Green. The boy later remembered it as "alive with slaves."

Two decades later, the boy escaped slavery and became the abolitionist and scholar Frederick Douglass. Today, the plantation he described, Wye House Farm, is a classroom for understanding slavery.

Archaeology students from the University of Maryland are slowly unearthing the details of slave life and the plantation system. They're also helping the plantation's descendants better understand their shared history.

A Bustling Plantation

Wye House Farm was settled in the 1650s by Edward Lloyd, a Welsh Puritan. In 1790, his great-grandson, Edward Lloyd IV, built the plantation house. At its peak, the farm covered 20,000 acres and enslaved 700 people at a time.

Today, the Lloyds' descendant, Richard Tilghman, occupies the great house. Tilghman, who was a lawyer in Baltimore for 30 years, welcomes the college students who are digging just yards from his back porch. Using shovels, trowels and brushes, the students have unearthed buttons, beads, pottery shards and the remains of buildings.

"I don't think anyone in the family is going to say we're proud that our family were slave owners. But on the other hand, it's our heritage, and the African-American people who come here — that's part of their heritage," Tilghman says.

Over hundreds of years, thousands of people were enslaved on the plantation. The Lloyds were the biggest landholders and slaveholders on the Eastern Shore. Wye House Farm was one of many massive plantations that fed much of the United States up to the Civil War. Mark Leone, professor of archaeology at the University of Maryland, says Wye's harvests were also shipped to the Caribbean and England.

"These large plantations were food factories, and that was entirely a function of slave labor, maintained in place by overseers, and Frederick Douglass describes their methods and extraordinary cruelty," Leone says.

Everyday Cruelty

But cruelty was a harsh fact of life for the plantation's slaves. The Long Green, a mile-long expanse from the Great House to the Wye River, was the center of working life. About 150 slaves — many with specialized skills, such as blacksmithing and carpentry — worked, lived and died on the green. The slaves' overseer lived in a small, red cottage at the end of the green. Among its occupants was a cruel man named Mr. Severe, made famous in Frederick Douglass' writings.

Douglass writes that he witnessed Severe whipping a slave woman, "causing the blood to run half an hour at a time... while her crying children pleaded for her release." Leone admits it's hard to come to terms with the what happened here 200 years ago. One way of comprehending plantation life is by reading the Maryland Slave Narratives, Leone says.

"One thing you realize is that slavery was every bit as evil here as it was anywhere south of here. So you can find the bitterness, you can find the forgiveness, you can find the horror, you can find the violence, you can find everything you ever heard about slavery in the narratives. And from Douglass, we know that it was on this very spot," Leone says.

Coming to Terms with History

About three miles down the road in Unionville, Md., is St. Stephens AME Church, a congregation founded by slaves from surrounding plantations who were freed during the Civil War. After serving in the Union Army, the former slaves who returned to the area were offered plots of land for $1 a month for 30 years by a Quaker farmer, who stipulated that they build a church and a school for their families.

Unionville resident Harriet Lowery's great-great-grandfather, Benjamin Demby, was one of the settlers. Lowery has been tracing her family history in the area, hoping to find some small consolation that the lives of her ancestors contained some joy.

In his memoirs, Douglass recounts the killing of a slave named Demby — likely one of Lowery's ancestors — by an overseer at Wye House Farm named Gore. Douglass wrote that Gore whipped Demby, who ran to the river to soothe his wounds. He refused to come out, and Gore shot him.

Lowery says she was deeply touched by a few small beads and pieces of pottery excavated on the Long Green and brought to St. Stephens for display.

"It was amazing to me that they had a necklace or earring. And there was one particular bowl ... it reminded me of a bowl my mother had," Lowery said. "It's comforting to me to know at least there were some peaceful times."

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