Hampton's Hidden History

The story of slavery gets a short telling at the former Baltimore plantation, where the staff hopes to expand the tale with newly funded exhibits. Critics charge it's to little too late.

December 01, 1999|By CARL SCHOETTLER | CARL SCHOETTLER,SUN STAFF

From the slave quarters at the bottom of the hill a quarter of a mile away, the Hampton plantation house rises in serene, commanding splendor, the perfect symbol of the power and wealth and hauteur of the self-satisfied slave owner.

Much like stock market and high-tech tycoons who these days build sprawling trophy homes to announce their sudden riches, Capt. Charles Ridgely celebrated his fortune by erecting "one of the largest and most ornate country residences of its time in America."

In 1790, when the house was completed, Ridgely died one of the richest men in the new United States. He had amassed an estate of 24,000 acres in Baltimore County, extending north from what is now the Baltimore Beltway at Dulaney Valley Road.

Ridgely was the proprietor of a sprawling agricultural, commercial and industrial empire that included the flourishing iron works called Northampton Furnace. The Northampton works, now submerged in Loch Raven Reservoir, provided shot and cannon for the Revolutionary War.

And Ridgely was the master of hundreds of African-American slaves, transported British and Irish convicts and indentured servants who all provided the labor on which his vast enterprises were built.

His mansion, now the Hampton National Historic Site and staffed by the National Park Service, is crammed with the personal belongings of six generations of Ridgelys, including the captain and his heir, Charles Carnan Ridgely, a brigadier general in the Maryland Militia who was governor of the state from 1816 to 1819.

Now, in a new book, "Lies Across America," which carries the subtitle "what historic sites get wrong," iconoclastic author James W. Loewen sharply criticizes the way the story of enslaved African-Americans is told, or not told, at Hampton.

For Loewen, who won the American Book Award for his textbook-debunking "Lies My Teacher Told Me," Hampton exemplifies the shortcomings of historical presentation at many antebellum plantations. He says hardly any do "a decent job telling it.

"That is the story of the site and its people -- which means the story of slavery," he writes in the Maryland chapter devoted to Hampton, the longest in his book.

They tell you a lot about "silverware," he says dismissively, but little about the slaves who made the majestic life of the owners possible.

Hampton long had a reputation as a place where nice white ladies went to have tea. But the tearoom was closed this year, because it presented a fire hazard to the mansion.

No slaves' possessions

Certainly, fine silver, museum-quality paintings, extraordinary period furniture, including rare Baltimore painted chairs, china, rugs, linens, porcelains, musical instruments, crystal chandeliers, candelabra and sentimental statuary, all the accouterments of the owners, abound at Hampton.

But not a scrap remains of the possessions of the slaves who worked the plantation and the iron works. Not a trace remains, except the slave quarters at the bottom of the hill.

When he died in 1829, Governor Ridgely owned "as many as 338 slaves," according to the documents that settled his will.

"We don't believe we have one thing from enslaved African-Americans," says William Blair Curtis, chief Park Service ranger at Hampton. "We have nothing we believe belonged to a slave."

And the contrast between the one-room-and-a-loft slave cabin visitors see at Hampton and the grand, 33-room Georgian mansion at the crest of the hill could hardly be greater. The master bedroom alone is far bigger than the cabin.

Curtis, who grew up in Gettysburg, Pa., graduated as a history major from Gettysburg College and has been a licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg, doesn't disagree with Loewen's insistence on the need for greater emphasis on the history of slavery at Hampton.

He has, in fact, a sharp sense of the ironies in the contrast between life in the slave quarters and life in the Great House. But both he and Laurie Coughlan, the superintendent at Hampton, feel a bit sandbagged by Loewen.

"I would have been more comfortable had he interviewed someone at the park about his findings and incorporated the park's perspective on it," Coughlan says a bit stiffly. "What we intend to do and what he interprets -- I don't see them at all being the same thing."

Earlier this year, Hampton received a $200,000 Save America's Treasures grant, a $200,000 state grant and $200,000 in private funds raised by Historic Hampton Inc. to restore the farmhouse and slave quarters to better present the story of the slaves, indentured servants and craftspeople who built the mansion and worked the plantation.

The board of Historic Hampton, a self-governing fund-raising and friends of the park association, includes two African-Americans -- and a pair of Ridgelys.

Hampton is, in fact, putting together a "general management plan" that will "guide the development and interpretation of the park for the next 10 to 15 years."

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