Tour promotes awareness of little-known slave houses Towson property holds historical value

September 30, 1996|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

When 9-year-old Blair Walker of Columbia looked around the meager wood slave quarters, she couldn't believe a family had lived in the tiny room.

"I think this is a very small house to live in," the fifth-grader said. "My bedroom is bigger than this."

Blair was one of about 50 African-Americans of varying ages who visited the Hampton National Historic Site in Towson yesterday for a specially arranged tour to promote awareness of three little-known slave houses on the property.

The visit came at a time when Bess Sherman, the first African-American superintendent of Hampton, is being transferred next week to a park in Topeka, Kan., -- and when many elected officials and preservationists worry about the future of the 63-acre site near Dulaney Valley Road operated by the National Park Service.

"It is of great value to have Bess in a place like this," said R. Kent Lancaster, whose recent research into slavery at the old plantation coincides with Sherman's 2 1/2 -year tenure there. "Nobody has ever gotten into slaves at Hampton before."

Since retiring four years ago as a professor of history at nearby Goucher College, Lancaster, a park volunteer, has become immersed in piecing together the slaves' story. He's only scratched the surface, he says.

"I'm not going to live long enough to do it," the 68-year-old Govans resident said. "What we hope to do is ferret out descendants of the Ridgely slaves."

The affluent Ridgely family owned the property that grew to 24,000 acres, stretching to White Marsh, from the mid-1700s. It became a self-sufficient community with forges and agriculture to support the 33-room Georgian home built in 1790 that was said to have been one of the largest in the country then.

At the backbone of its workings before the Civil War were 340 slaves, who helped build the mansion, dig the tiered gardens, work the forges and the farms, and were house servants.

Little is known of their personal lives, though, because the Ridgelys' meticulous records are told from a white person's perspective, Lancaster said. Also, most slaves could not read or write.

A Ridgely descendant wrote, "I still remember the younger ones coming to me at times privately with little primers begging me at the same time not to let the elders know."

Other clues to their treatment remain, too.

Newspaper advertisements reveal that slaves ran away. Also, while the Ridgelys listed clothing and shoes to be given to the slaves and Christmas lists for "the people," they also noted iron shackles.

Still, the two stone slave quarters built around 1850 -- the other is wood and probably more typical -- indicate the Ridgelys wanted show they took good care of their slaves, said Jenny Masur, the park's chief of interpretation.

The surviving three houses, which are open by appointment, were among many scattered -- and now gone -- throughout the original property -- most probably located around the Providence Road area, Masur said.

For many in the group, visiting the slave quarters was an opportunity to learn about their history. Superintendent Sherman bought a gigantic white-and-blue cake for the occasion with the inscription, "Thanks to the ancestors."

"It's truth," said Burnis Parker Sr., an Anne Arundel County schoolteacher, of slavery. "You should want to know the good and the bad."

The organizer of the tour was Rosetta Gainey, a Baltimore resident who heads the nonprofit African Diaspora Concerns Foundation that sends educational and medicinal supplies to Africa.

"Now it's time to domesticize it," said Gainey of her efforts to promote African-American culture. "It amazed me that African-Americans living near Baltimore were not cognizant [Hampton] was here."

To honor their ancestors, the tour group ended the afternoon visit with a libation, or religious ceremony, next to the slave quarters. Alfonzo Powell of Mitchelville led the adults and children in traditional prayers and pouring of water, the "gift of life," to show respect for their deceased relatives.

"You must continue to tell the story," he told them. "You must share the story."

Pub Date: 9/30/96

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