A Sense of Ownership Pain and pride: History weighs heavily on the old Sotterley Plantation in St. Mary's County, and on those who labor to save it, black and white.

January 22, 1996|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

HOLLYWOOD -- A wintry sun slants through the old trees of Sotterley Plantation, falls in splintered rays on Agnes Kane Callum's strong, wide face, and casts her shadow against the weathered walls of the last remaining cas from around 1830. When southern Maryland's tobacco culture was at its height in the 18th century, at least 52 slaves worked Sotterley. Perhaps a dozen cabins were squeezed onto a thin strip of otherwise unuseable land between this St. Mary's County plantation's "rolling road" and a ditch-like ravine.

Now, just this one cabin remains -- a cold, gray remnant of a past that evokes anger and shame, pride and dignity.

Agnes Callum's great-grandfather, Hilliary Kane, lived in the slave quarters from 1848 until Maryland's 1864 Unionist Constitution abolished slavery. Married twice, he and his wives raised 18 children in this sort of post-and-plank cabin, chinked against the wind by a mix of mud and hog bristles.

One of his sons, Henry, born a slave at Sotterley, was Mrs. Callum's grandfather.

At 70, she is a very active trustee of the Sotterley Mansion Foundation, which administers the plantation where her forebears were slaves. She's hard at work trying to preserve Sotterley as a public institution.

Sotterley, long the only southern Maryland plantation open to the public, is closed for the winter and unlikely to reopen before the middle of the year because of a severe financial crunch. Money is needed for extensive structural repairs of Sotterley's mansion and for operating expenses.

Carolyn Laray, the foundation's executive director, says the organization needs about $2 million to help Sotterley survive as a public place.

"I hope Sotterley does not close," Mrs. Callum says. "I think this comes as close to a complete plantation as ever you will find in the state of Maryland."

"Complete" because of the slave quarters and perhaps unique: Folks in St. Mary's County have called Sotterley America's oldest working plantation. It's been in continuous operation since Squire James Bowles, the son of a London tobacco merchant, established the plantation in 1710. Slaves no doubt helped rise Bowles' original two-room house that survives as the manor's entrance hall and library. Plantation land inherited by relatives of Mabel Satterlee Ingalls, the owner who set up the Sotterley foundation, is still cultivated.

"Sotterley was a self-sufficient plantation," Mrs. Callum says. "And the blacks who worked there, the slaves, were skilled laborers, some of them. They did everything.

"My great-grandfather was a master plasterer, and they hired him out to do work as far away as Charlotte Hall," she says. "And the blacks have not been given credit for what they did at Sotterley."

A sturdy, cheerful woman with an edge of sardonic realism, Mrs. Callum is a tenacious and determined chronicler of her family's genealogy and African-American history in gen-eral. In nearly a quarter-century of searching records from St. Mary's courthouse Ghana, West Africa, she's become a kind of authoritative folk historian.

Mrs. Callum, who earned a bachelor's degree from Morgan State University at 48 and a master's degree in social sciences two years later, has published a genealogy of her Kane and Butler ancestors. Her mother descended from the free blacks of the Butler family. Mrs. Callum founded and edits a black genealogical journal called Flower of the Forest after a tract of St. Mary's County land that Butler family members have owned for nearly 125 years.

She's chronicled -- name-by-name -- 5,700 African-American marriages from 1800 to 1900 in St. Mary's County. She's recorded the history of African-Americans who fought in the Civil War in her book "Colored Volunteers of Maryland -- Civil War -- 7th Regiment U. S. Colored Troops, 1863-1866."

"I dare say I am the first one who has ever done serious work on the blacks of St. Mary's County," she says. "And they played a significant role in the growth of the county. Much of the wealth has come off of the backs of the black people. So we have to leave something."

The president of the Sotterley Foundation board is St. Mary's County Judge John Hanson Briscoe, former speaker of the House of Delegates and scion of a family settled in Maryland since the Ark and Dove landed at St. Clement's Island. His great-grandfather, Dr. Walter Hanson Stone Briscoe, owned Sotterley when Agnes Callum's kinfolk were slaves there.

Mr. Briscoe recalls that when he came on the board two years ago, Mrs. Callum told him she had some documents she thought might interest him. They were the records of the sale of her great-grandfather on the steps of the Leonardtown Courthouse.

"I have never run across anything quite like this," says Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which is trying to help Sotterley survive. "Here you have the descendants of a slave and a slave holder, both trying to save this property."

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