Digging Up The Past

Uncovering Annapolis' African - American History

October 14, 1990|By SUE CAMPBELL

LIKE SO MANY DAYS THIS PAST SUMMER, JULY 11 DAWNED hot and steamy; but that didn't keep passers-by from stopping and staring into the deep pits we were digging as part of an archaeology project in downtown Annapolis. Peering down, everyone wanted to know: "What did you find? Anything interesting?" They hazarded guesses and hopes: "Any gold?" "Any bones?"

Kathie Hitch, a Bowie native and one of two dozen undergraduates earning University of Maryland field-study credits by working for Archaeology in Annapolis, told them about the record that she found. And about the plastic sunglass frames and the slivers of glass. The people seemed disappoint-ed. Always, they hoped for something more dramatic - -something that would indicate, perhaps, great wealth or some story of intrigue.

Paul Mullins, the lab supervisor for the dig, jokingly refers to this interest in things as an "object fetish." He says that most people have one and that it shows how we think about archaeology in general. We tend to focus primarily on the arti-facts themselves, instead of on what the artifacts mean. Archaeologists, however, are more interested in the interpretation - in trying to discover not just what an artifact is, but also what it can tell us about the person who once owned it, and about how that person lived.

The Franklin Street dig, supervised by four graduate students including Mr. Mullins, is part of a 10-year umbrella project called Archaeology in Annapolis. Co-sponsored by Historic Annapolis and the University of Maryland, Archaeology in Annapolis is designed to enrich the city's heritage by excavating, processing and interpreting artifacts. The Franklin Street site is one of several examined as part of the larger project. It was chosen as a place to dig during this past summer, and the next two summers, because the County Courthouse, which now uses the site as a parking lot, plans to add an annex. If the site weren't excavated, any artifacts buried there would be lost forever.

The site was also significant because of who once lived there. According to 19th century city directories, census reports and fire insurance maps, the owners of Franklin Street property were free African-Americans. Their houses, specifically labeled "Negro dwellings" on the old maps, lined the entire block. Blacks inhabited the area continuously from as early as the 1830s, and probably earlier, up until the 1970s.

That fact should not surprise us. After all, African-Americans have lived in Annapolis since the 1600s. By 1850, they represented one quarter of the city's population. Still, most people are surprised to learn about Annapolis' free black population, a me while digging on the Franklin Street site. Ms. Hitch and I were hunched together in a 4--foot-deep pit, one of five dug on the parking lot. India Pruitt, 10 years old, full of spunk, the first and at that time only African- American on the dig, joined us. India told us that she loves to dig in the dirt, and that her mother, who works for the Banneker-Douglass Museum, en-couraged her to give her time to the project. Working hard, wielding trowels, we three scraped at the pit's dense red clay bottom. All of us were hot and sweaty and a little bit tired.

"This dirt, it's pitiful," said India. It was crowded and stuffy in the pit. She stood up for some air and to wipe the sweat from her face. "Boy," she said. "I'm glad I'm not a slave." She paused. "This is exactly how they must have felt, out in the sun all day, picking cotton and lugging it around."

It struck me then that India Pruitt knew a great deal more about the daily lives of slaves who lived on distant plantations than she knew about the free African-Americans who once lived a few blocks from her home. I, too, knew more about slaves. And probably, until the start of the dig, so did all the college students and even the professional archaeologists working on the site.

You could say our lack of information was pitiful.

But that is precisely why the dig was arranged. The artifacts that are found will help fill the wide gaps in our knowledge. In July, this particular exploration had just begun. In the future, though, as all of the artifacts are cleaned, categorized and interpreted, it will help shed new light on what life was like for past generations of African--Americans in Annapolis.

IF ANYONE GRASPS HOW little attention has been focused on black history in Annapolis, it's Dr. Mark Leone, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Dr. Leone also serves as project director for Archaeology in Annapolis. Until last year, Archaeology in Annapolis focused mostly on white - Annapolis -for example, excavating the elaborate gardens behind the Charles Carroll home. (Carroll was a signer of the Declaration and archaeology of black remained largely ignored.

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