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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

One day in 1824 on the lowlands of Maryland's Eastern Shore, a small, black child walked with his grandmother up a farm lane past a great plantation house onto a stretch of land called the Long Green. The boy's name was Frederick Douglass.

Two decades later, he escaped slavery. He wrote that this plantation, Wye House Farm, was where he first understood what slavery meant. Today, Wye House Farm is again a location for confronting that harsh and peculiar institution.

Archaeology students from the University of Maryland are digging there - seeking to illuminate the details of the plantation system.

NPR's John Ydstie and producer Sarah Mobley Smith traveled across the Chesapeake Bay to see what they found.

(Soundbite of digging)

JOHN YDSTIE: Just beyond the great house that Frederick Douglass first saw as a 6-year-old, college students in T-shirts and jeans are uncovering the hidden stories of this plantation's past with shovels, trowels and brushes.

Ms. LISA KRAUS (Doctoral Student. University of Maryland): Actually, if you come over here, I can show you.

YDSTIE: Doctoral student Lisa KRAUS, her hair covered in a striped bandana, is directing the dig.

Ms. KRAUS: You can see that there is a sort of a little square and then a long linear wall behind it.

Mr. DON CARR(ph) (Student, University of Maryland): We figured this was just re-deposited subsoil because of the kind of the way - it just really easily broke apart.

YDSTIE: The buttons and beads, pottery shards and remains of buildings being unearthed here by students like Don Carr are of great interest to the surrounding community. One of the things that makes this dig special is that the descendants of the plantation slaves lived just a few minutes down the road. And descendants of the original planter, Edward Lloyd(ph), live a few steps away in the great house.

Among the aims of this dig is to help those two communities better understand their shared history.

Richard Tilghman is the current occupant of the great house. He greats us at the front door in khaki shorts, a buttoned-down shirt and topsiders.

Mr. RICHARD TILGHMAN (Occupant, Wye House Farm): My favorite part is on Wye(ph) and take this great big old Wye. Turn it twice, and there you have it.

YDSTIE: Tilghman, who was a lawyer in Baltimore for 30 years, moved to Wye House with his wife just recently. His mother, the family matriarch, lives in a small house a short walk away.

Mr. TILGHMAN: There's a gate on either side, and there's a brick wall that runs between them. So when you stand here and look out, you can't tell there's a wall.

YDSTIE: The broad green lawn and tree-lined drive you see as you gaze out this front door is part of the farm settled in the 1650s by Richard Tilghman's ancestor - Edward Lloyd, a Welsh Puritan. It was his great-grandson, Edward Lloyd IV, who built this plantation house around 1790. His picture hangs in the entrance hall.

Mr. TILGHMAN: Edward Lloyd IV, his wife and daughter. The daughter married Francis Scott Key interestingly.

YDSTIE: Edward Lloyd IV amassed 20,000 acres of land. That's 30 square miles, creating a huge plantation. Family records show that between six and seven hundred slaves worked the fields at the plantation's peak.

Standing on the back porch of the great house overlooking the garden, Richard Tilghman reflects on that past and the work being done a hundred yards away to uncover it.

Mr. TILGHMAN: Let's put it this way. I don't think anyone in their family is, you know, you're going to go and say we're proud that our family were slave owners. But on the other hand, it's our heritage and the people who come here — the African-American people who come here - that's part of their heritage. And we can share that with them and give them an opportunity to understand better what their ancestors' lives were like, how people lived in those days, whether slave or free. We don't want to tout the fact that we were slave owners, but it's probably not necessary to be embarrassed about it.

YDSTIE: Over its history, thousands were enslaved on Wye House Farm. The Lloyds were the biggest landholders and slaveholders on Maryland's Eastern Shore. And Lisa KRAUS says this mile-long expanse from the great house to the Wye River was the factory center of this plantation.

Ms. KRAUS: They had all kinds of specialized trades that were happening through here - carpentry and smithing, coopering. They had slaves that operated the schooner that they ran between here and Baltimore. And then they had people who were cooking and doing other tasks in the house. They had people that were taking care of livestock, working in the dairy, smoking hams - everything that went into the lifeblood of the plantation were slaves in every respect.

YDSTIE: But the harvests weren't just carried to Baltimore. Food from Wye House Farm was also shipped to the Caribbean and England. Massive plantations like this one fed much of America between 1800 and the Civil War, according to Mark Leone, professor of archaeology at the University of Maryland. Leone worked with the Tilghmans to get his student archeologist on to the Long Green.

Dr. MARK LEONE (Professor of Archaeology, Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland): These large plantations were food factories, and it's entirely a function of slave labor, maintained in place by overseers, and Frederick Douglass described both their methods and their extraordinary cruelty.

YDSTIE: At one end of the Long Green flanking the great house is another significant building.

Dr. LEONE: Let me walk you around.

YDSTIE: Okay.

This the red overseer's cottage, made famous in Frederick Douglass' writings. Among its occupants was a cruel overseer named Mr. Severe.

Dr. LEONE: Douglass points out that a watchful eye of this violent man sat behind these windows. How there are trees here, and they wouldn't have been here…

YDSTIE: No trees when Mr. Severe lived in this house.

Dr. LEONE: No trees at all, no hedge grows, no forestation, nothing to interfere with the visibility of the overseer. After all, seer is sight. And he's using sight as a form of control, and he's on a mound here so he can see into windowed buildings, stores that are - that have to be kept open.

YDSTIE: 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.

There is a cognitive dissonance that affects anyone who reads Douglass and then comes to this place now. It's the loveliest, most pastoral place imaginable - a stately great house on a peaceful river, broad lawns spreading to fields of tall corn, melting into quiet woods.

Leone admits it's hard to come to terms with this scene and what was happening here 200 years ago.

Dr. LEONE: Well, when you excavate this material, there isn't any pain. When you work with the descendant community, they don't expose their pain. What you have to do to understand the evil of slavery is read the "Maryland Slave Narratives." And you read them and you think you're in the deepest part of the most vicious South. It's just astonishing. And 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. And from Douglass, we know that it was on this very spot. But it isn't in the ground here because it just doesn't leave a trace. Now, what do you do with that?

(Soundbite of church choir singing)

YDSTIE: A few miles down the road from Wye House Farm is a small, white wooden church, St. Stephens AME. It's the center of a little hamlet called Unionville. It was founded by slaves from surrounding plantations. After being freed during the Civil War, they joined the Union Army. Those who returned were offered plots of land here by a Quaker farmer who had fought with them.

Harriet Lowery's great-great-grandfather, Benjamin Demby, was one of them.

Ms. HARRIET LOWERY (Resident, Unionville): Eighteen of them came back. And those 18, he gave each a parcel of land for a dollar a month for 30 years with two stipulations: One, that they build a church for their families - and that's the church that's here now - and a school for their children.

YDSTIE: Lowery, who moved back to her family's land in Unionville almost 10 years ago, has been trying to find out more about the family's history. She's enthusiastic about the archeology going on at Wye House Farm.

Ms. LOWERY: It's very hard for us to find out our roots a lot of times. And so to see something so real, to hear about something so real, just gave me a sense of pride because it gave me a feeling of being in touch with my ancestors.

YDSTIE: Frederick Douglass' writings have shed light on her family's past too. In his memoirs, Douglass recounts the killing of a slave named Demby - likely one of Harriet's ancestors - by an overseer at Wye House Farm named Gore.

Lowery reads the passage that describes Gore whipping Demby, and Demby bolting for the river, plunging into the water up to his neck to sooth his wounds and refusing to come out.

Ms. LOWERY: (Reading) Mr. Gore told him that he would give him three calls and that if he did not come out at the third call, he will shoot him. The first call was given. Demby made no response but stood his ground. The second and third calls were given with the same result. Mr. Gore then, without consultation or deliberation with anyone, raised his musket to his face, taking deadly aim at his standing victim. And in an instant, poor Demby was no more. His mangled body sank out of sight, and blood and brains marked the water where he had stood.

When you read stuff like this, it brings vividly back the horrors of slavery because when you talk about one murder, one death, you can imagine, especially with this overseer, how many more that were committed.

YDSTIE: Accounts like that of slavery's horrors have left Harriet Lowery determined to find some small consolation, some hope that the lives of her ancestors contained some joy. So she was deeply touched by a few small beads and pieces of pottery found on the Long Green and brought to St. Stephens for display.

Ms. LOWERY: It was amazing to me to think that they even had a necklace or earring. That just was amazing to me. And there was one particular bowl, a big chunk of it and the colors, it reminded me mostly of a bowl that my mother had. And it's comforting to me to think that there were at least some peaceful times.

YDSTIE: Harriet Lowery says she harbors no animosity toward the descendants of Edward Lloyd, in fact, quite the contrary.

Mr. LOWERY: I have been most grateful to Ms. Tilghman because if she had never opened up her home to us or to archeologists, we would not know what we know today. Her history is hers, and she could have kept it that way. Ms. Tilghman is one of the people, in my opinion, who is trying to bridge the gap between knowing what happened and trying to understand how we can heal from it. And I'm most appreciative of that.

YDSTIE: In the cemetery behind St. Stephens, Harriet Lowery has found the most tangible touchstone to her past.

Ms. LOWERY: These are the United States Colored Troop headstones. And you can tell that by the emblem - the shield that you see. And Benjamin Demby is right there.

YDSTIE: Your great-great-grandfather?

Ms. LOWERY: Yes.

YDSTIE: Back at Wye House Farm, there are two cemeteries that are counterparts to the one at St. Stephens. Nine Edward Lloyds are buried in one of them - stately tombstones marked their graves. The other, in the middle of a cornfield, within sight of the red overseer's cottage, is marked by a thick stand of trees. No one knows how many slaves are buried there, probably thousands. Professor Leone says it's sacred ground, and he has no intention of digging there.

John Ydstie, NPR News.

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