Making the family connections

Historians: Friends who share a deep interest in Annapolis discover their ties to the past are intertwined.

May 27, 2003|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

When Orlando Ridout IV was growing up, talk around the fire in his grandmother's parlor often turned to family history and the ancestor who came to Maryland in 1753 as secretary to colonial Gov. Horatio Sharpe.

Ridout, now an 80-year-old retired historian, eagerly absorbed the stories about John Ridout, who eventually inherited White Hall, Sharpe's estate near Annapolis - and its 25 slaves.

Fellow historian Janice Hayes-Williams, 45, believes she is a descendant of one of those slaves. She recalls sitting on her grandmother's Annapolis stoop, hearing about her Murray ancestors and the local families that once owned them, the Mosses and the Ridouts.

"As an African-American growing up here ... talking about your families, the name Ridout went along with it," says Hayes-Williams. "There has always been a connection to White Hall from our oral tradition."

But it was only last month that Hayes-Williams, with Ridout's help, made that connection on paper, through information from a yellowed 1794 slave inventory of White Hall in the Maryland Archives.

That discovery is the culmination of a fruitful relationship that has evolved over the years between the two historians separated by more than a generation and a cultural divide influenced by slavery.

"We're friends because we share a deep interest in the history of Annapolis," Ridout said.

Ridout, who lives on a property that once was part of the White Hall farm, served as the first director of the Maryland Historical Trust. Hayes-Williams, who retired in 1998 as a government contract negotiator, has become known for her dramatic interpretations of African-American history in the Annapolis area.

Over the past few years, the two have often worked together, sharing historical tidbits and lending each other support.

Last year, they helped found the nonprofit Friends of the Maynard-Burgess House to promote renovation of a historic Annapolis home that once belonged to John Maynard, a free black man during slavery.

But their family connections remained shrouded in the dust of history - buried with the generations of slaves regarded as little more than statistics by the government.

There are no official records of the births, marriages or deaths of slaves, Hayes-Williams explains. They were recorded as numbers without names in the national census before 1870 and often were listed in the records of their owners only by first name or nickname.

In researching her genealogy, Hayes-Williams relied on a family Bible, a St. Margaret's church register shared by Ridout and historical letters. She traced her paternal, Hayes family line to a great-grandmother named Henrietta Murray.

Henrietta Murray's father and grandfather - Nathan Murray and Ignatius "Nace" Murray, respectively - were owned by the Ridouts' neighbors, the Mosses, in the 1800s, according to Hayes-Williams' research.

But Hayes-Williams knew from oral history that her family was connected with White Hall and the Ridouts - she just couldn't document it.

"We don't have a pedigree chart," Hayes-Williams says. "We have oral history because that was the only way for us to record what went on."

Last month, she found the connection she had been looking for, in a call from Orlando Ridout. He had a copy of John Ridout's 1794 inventory of 25 White Hall slaves. Only one slave on the list had a last name, he told her - but that last name was Murray.

Sam Murray was valued at 80 pounds - less than prime monetary value due to "his arm being hurt," according to the document. "The likelihood of two separate Murray families in 1794 [in the same area] would be unusual," Hayes-Williams says.

Not only that, the inventory listed a slave named "Nace" - the same name, in a later generation, as Hayes-Williams' great-great-great-grandfather. That suggests the man listed on the inventory also may have been an ancestor, Hayes-Williams believes.

Though she still has to bridge the missing generations, Hayes-Williams is confident she has found her link to White Hall and Ridout's ancestors. "Now, I have to solve the gap," she says.

The historians announced their slavery connection at the recent ceremonial kickoff of the Maynard-Burgess House renovation, an event in which Ridout pulled his colleague to the podium though she was not scheduled to speak.

"We've become friends working on this house," Ridout told the crowd of historians and city officials. "I am very pleased and proud to be working with her."

Though Ridout and Hayes-Williams say their families knew each other - all old families in Annapolis do, they say - they did not meet until about five years ago.

At first, the historians didn't talk much about their shared family history, focusing more generally on African-American history and the stories that fascinated them both.

Ridout helped Hayes-Williams unlock the mystery of a Bryce family slave. Hayes-Williams recently discovered, in the Moss family papers, details of the construction of White Hall.

Inevitably, they also talked about slavery.

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