"We always assumed he was sold. I found the actual reason: He joined the Union army," she says. "It was great to find he went to fight for his own freedom. It gave my mother such a sense of pride."
For anyone researching their forebears, new technology has become indispensable. A World Wide Web site called AfriGeneas.com overflows with advice on tracing black ancestry; its online discussion group recently debated the personal family histories presented in April by NBC "Today" show hosts Katie Couric, a descendant of cotton-growing slave owners, and Al Roker, a descendant of slaves in the Bahamas.
A CD-ROM just published by Cambridge University Press has revolutionized the study of the slave trade by detailing 27,233 trans-Atlantic voyages, cross-referencing ships, captains, ports and even shipboard rebellions. Another new CD-ROM records more than 90,000 Louisiana slaves along with gender, age, skills and sale prices.
No such resource exists for Maryland, but a rich history is there. The narrative of this American original sin is densely woven into the social history of the Chesapeake region, where kidnapped Africans built the plantation economy whose splendid mansions still survive. The struggle against slavery also has deep roots here: The great black abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were enslaved on the Eastern Shore.
"There are some real horror stories, but some real inspiring stories, too," says Francis W. Green, 72, a retired Baltimore manager who has led local interracial discussion groups in which slavery was much debated.
Last year, Green traveled the route by which Tubman led more than 300 slaves to freedom. "There were many, many eye-opening things for me: stories of people swimming to Canada, bounty hunters grabbing people in churches," he says. "One man who was taken back after running away for the 13th time; his ear was nailed to a tree, and he was left there till he died."
Few Baltimoreans know it, but in the decades before the Civil War, more than a dozen slave dealers operated around the harbor. Local shipbuilders, meanwhile, served the illicit international slave trade, building for illegal slavers the speedy "Baltimore clippers" they used to evade the Coast Guard.
Newspaper advertisements offering slaves for sale appeared daily; some in this newspaper concluded, "Inquire at Sun office." Ads and posters seeking the return of runaways were ubiquitous. Some were inadvertent portraits of the human talent kept in bondage, such as an 1809 poster from Westminster offering $10 for the return of "Peter, about 30 years of age speaks German nearly as well as English; he was brought up by me to do plantation work chiefly, of which he is very capable; but can do a little at blacksmith, shoe-making and carpenter's work, and has some knowledge of making gun barrels. He also plays on the fiddle and fife tolerably well."
Through the Civil War, the ideology of the slave owner held sway in Maryland. In 1857, a free black man in Dorchester County got 10 years in prison for mere possession of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." An 1859 meeting of slaveholders at the Towson courthouse resolved: "That the welfare of the negro and his elevation in the scale of existence is dependent upon his continuation of subordination under a superior and more intellectual race."
That world view would linger for a century after emancipation. Its taint is unmistakable, for example, in "The Growth of the American Republic," a history text by two eminent historians, Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager, in the 1930s and not revised until the 1950s.
"As for Sambo," they wrote, casually invoking an insulting popular stereotype, "whose wrongs moved some abolitionists to wrath and tears, there is some reason to believe that he suffered less than any other class in the South from its `peculiar institution.' The majority of slaves were adequately fed, well cared for, and apparently happy."
Even as a generation of college students absorbed such views, interviewers were documenting a far more authentic account of slavery, capturing the voices of the last living former slaves on early tape recorders.
Among many interviewed in Baltimore was a 101-year-old former slave named Fountain Hughes, who recounted slave life in Virginia in sonorous tones.
"If I thought, had any idea, that I'd ever be a slave again, I'd take a gun and just end it all right away," said Hughes in the 1949 taping. "Because you're nothing but a dog. You're not a thing but a dog."
By the 1970s, history texts that echoed slaveholders' "happy slave" self-justifications were disappearing from print. But even as landmark revisionist books were published, slavery remained a byway of the historical profession.