Site may provide data on slave lives

April 02, 1995|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Sun Staff Writer

A site believed to contain the remnants of quarters for the 18th-century slaves of a colonial governor of Maryland has been found near the tip of the Broadneck peninsula.

Archaeological researchers have unearthed domestic debris, shells, fragments of ceramics and glass, and pieces of brick about a mile from Whitehall, the mansion Gov. Horatio Sharpe built about 1765 overlooking the Chesapeake Bay.

"In my educated opinion, what we are looking at [are] slave quarters," said Al Luckenbach, Anne Arundel County archaeologist.

The find, in fields where a developer plans to build a 134-home community called Lighthouse Landing, is considered significant because little material exists about rural slave life in colonial Maryland, or elsewhere.

"Elitism . . . of those who chronicled history was such that there was very little attention given to enslaved Africans," said Michael L. Blakey, a Howard University professor of anthropology and director of the 18th-century New York African Burial Ground Project in Lower Manhattan.

While there have been digs in Annapolis of the homes of free blacks and slaves, "I don't think that there has been in this county an excavation of rural slave life," Mr. Luckenbach said.

The site has a "potentially high level of significance," he said. "There are a number of buildings undoubtedly involved."

Mr. Luckenbach said it is unlikely the quarters belonged to a tenant farmer because their proximity to the mansion suggests quarters for field slaves. "It's Sharpe's property and Sharpe's time period, so I assume for now they were Sharpe's slaves," he said.

Much of Anne Arundel County was farmed in colonial times, and there were rural slave quarters. Some still stand, but are not believed to be as old as the find at Whitehall.

The number of slaves who lived at Whitehall is unknown.

"That is difficult to gauge. You had elderly slaves who didn't work . . . and children," said Orlando Ridout IV, a preservation and architectural historian whose ancestors came from England with Governor Sharpe.

Experts said the site has the potential to reveal all kinds of information about people whose masters often recorded them only in terms of their market value. They had no legal rights and were considered insignificant. Few could read or write, and they did not leave behind the diaries, letters and other documents typically used by historians.

"How did these people, if at all, how did they create a life for themselves? Were they accommodated as human beings in practice, if not in policy? How did they take care of themselves?" asked Ronald Sharps, executive director of the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture.

Colonial slave quarters "were very rudimentary. What we really have are travelers' descriptions and some woodcuts that are more Currier & Ives style" than realistic, said Dr. Melinda Chateauvert, a University of Maryland professor of African-American history.

The significance of 18th-century slave quarters would be what they might reveal about Governor Sharpe and about the African cultures slaves brought to the American colonies, Dr. Chateauvert said.

Utensils and kitchen trash could indicate not only what slaves ate, but whether they prepared food according to their African past or in European ways, said James O. Horton, a professor of history and American studies at George Washington University.

"One of the big questions has been how much of their life reflected African life," Dr. Chateauvert said.

The site "may contain the potential to contribute significant data regarding the early settlement of Anne Arundel County," concluded ACS Consultants, the Columbia archaeology firm that found the site during an archaeological survey county officials required of the developer.

The archaeologist, Hettie L. Ballweber of ACS, declined to be interviewed. In a letter to Mr. Luckenbach, she said the developers were upset by her findings and did not want the county archaeologist notified.

Ed Sears, the developer, said Ms. Ballweber "totally misrepresented our positions" and that the county archaeologist's decision about what to do would prevail.

The proposed development has become controversial in large part because it needs waivers from a county ordinance that says public facilities must be able to accommodate new development.

County school officials have said Broadneck's schools are too overcrowded to accept the 127 students they estimate would come from Lighthouse Landing. Also, the county has designated Whitehall Road, which led to Whitehall Manor, a historic and scenic road. This means developers need a waiver from making otherwise required road improvements.

"I think it is important to the African-American culture to explore [the site]," Mr. Ridout said. Descendants of Sharpe family slaves still live in the area, he said.

Governor Sharpe's impressive brick manor house, located about seven miles from Annapolis, is privately owned and is a National Historic Landmark. Governor Sharpe arrived in Maryland in August 1753. A decade later he bought 814 acres on the north shore of the Severn River. He started building the house in 1765, according to histories.

In 1769 he was replaced as governor.

Family business took Governor Sharpe to England. Political events, including the American Revolution, prevented him from returning to Whitehall. Nevertheless, his property was specifically exempted from the Confiscation Act of 1780 in recognition of his service as governor. At his death in 1790, he bequeathed Whitehall to his friend John Ridout, who he had brought with him from England to be his secretary.

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