Patuxent park slave houses deserve help from state

This Just In...

October 08, 1999|By Dan Rodricks

A COLD, DRY wind blew from the west through a vast farm field, shaking rows of dead corn and knocking hard against the cherry tree above Greenbury Howard's grave. The wind rattled the tree limbs. It rustled the maroon leaves, turning each to reveal its green underside. It whispered through the grass, and the grass parted naturally to either side of a small stone marked with three names -- George Howard, Laura Howard and Hattie Brown, who was the last to be buried here, 30 years ago.

"Aunt Hattie," Arthur Murphy said, excited at her memory, as he walked near the family plot, marked by a cherry tree, a simple wire fence and a wooden gate.

We approached a stand of trees separating cornfields in this remote stretch of Patuxent River State Park, near the Howard County-Montgomery County border. Hardly anyone, except the farmer who leases the land, comes here. To reach it, Murphy and I had to hike a muddy trail about two miles from the end of an unpaved road.

"There's the old slave house," Murphy said now. "It goes back to the late 1700s, and it was inhabited until the 1970s, when it was hit by lightning and couldn't be saved."

The house, once occupied by Murphy's ancestors -- slaves owned by the wealthy white Howards of Howard County and the descendants of those slaves -- was not immediately visible. But as Murphy directed my gaze into the trees, I could see a tower of stones, an old chimney. The stones were stacked so precariously, with the mortar gone, it seemed the wind from the west easily could have knocked them down.

To the right was a stone wall, the side of the house, with a lopsided window frame just below the peak. Ivy draped the wall. Gone was the frame of what had been a large house, two stories high, occupied by slaves (Greenbury Howard's mother, Polly, among them) who had worked the fields around us. The roof, with a wood-shingled dormer, had slid off at a surreal angle and appeared suspended 2 feet from the ground -- as if the entire structure had been brought to its knees, then trussed in time by bramble and vines.

We had stepped into one of the old creases of Maryland countryside, a historic place unmarked by cairns or road signs. You can't get there from here -- unless you know the way. And Murphy, a political consultant and student of his family's history, knows the way.

When he was a boy, 35 to 40 years ago, he spent summers here. His father, William H. Murphy Sr., the retired Baltimore judge, traces his ancestry to the slaves of Howard County. He spent part of the Depression there, learned about farming from his Howard country cousins. Later, when he was an accomplished city lawyer, he returned and bought some of the land. He built a summer house in a clearing in the 1960s. "Pop called it `getting even,' " Arthur Murphy said.

William Murphy wanted his children, among them the Baltimore lawyer Billy Murphy, to know the Howard land where their roots run deep. Other Howard slave descendants either never left or resettled the land.

A relative named Freddie Howard fixed up another slave house, also two centuries old, at the corner of a corn field.

We found it, empty and decrepit, embraced by trees and vines. Like the first house near the burial ground, Freddie Howard's was made of sand-colored stone. Its roof was intact, but the shingled addition he built in the 1950s had become detached. It appeared to be slowly falling away from the original part of the house.

The wind picked up again and turned the leaves of trees around the house. The sky in the east was sunny, in the west purple-gray. I found myself looking into the empty windows of the old house, imagining the faces of slave children. Behind me a blue jay squawked.

The modern resettlement of the land by the Howards was short-lived, Arthur Murphy said. The state wanted the land to extend the park and bought it from descendants of the Howards three decades ago. That's why the A-frame getaway Murphy's father built in the woods is gone. That's why the slave houses have been left to decay.

The slave houses deserve a better fate.

This week, the governor of Maryland pledged $9 million to fix state parks. It would be nice if a little could go to this remote stretch of Patapsco Valley, to clear away the vines and bramble, to expose the old slave houses for those who might be willing to hike the same muddy trail Murphy and I took the other day. It's a spiritual hike, a pilgrimage into a little crease of our history.

Murphy showed me the way to another graveyard for slaves and their descendants, Howard Chapel Cemetery, clearly marked along a paved road. Several Howards are buried there. The chapel is gone.

"The old family Bibles tell us that many of the old Howards knew how to read and write in the early to mid-19th century," Murphy said as he stood in the final resting place of his honorable ancestors, some of whom learned to read and write even as slaves. "To know that," he said, "to know that about my people -- I draw power from that. Pride ... and dignity."

There is a great poplar tree near the spot where the Howard Chapel once stood. When the wind stirred, the tree seemed to swell and grow taller, and its massive leafy canopy became in that soaring instant the ceiling of a cathedral.

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