R. Kent Lancaster, 76, professor of history at Goucher College

March 27, 2004|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

R. Kent Lancaster, a retired Goucher College history professor who spent a decade researching the lives of slaves who lived at what is now the Hampton National Historic Site, died Monday of complications from cancer at St. Joseph Medical Center. The Towson resident, who lived for many years in Lake-Evesham, was 76.

"He was a wonderful teacher with a wicked, wicked sense of humor," said former Goucher president Rhoda Dorsey. "He had enormous patience and great respect for his students. His students appreciated his care and his high historical standards. He also understood that a grade or a paper are not necessarily a life-or-death issue."

The West Point, Miss., native earned an English degree at Mississippi State University and then studied art at George Washington University. He later worked for the State Department as a consular officer in Germany, Iraq and Japan. He received his doctorate in medieval history from the Johns Hopkins University. There he was an assistant to Asian scholar Owen Lattimore, who was falsely accused of being a Communist sympathizer during the 1950s.

Dr. Lancaster was hired as a Goucher history instructor in 1963 and remained at the Towson college for the next 29 years. He helped establish a major in historic preservation there, wrote numerous scholarly articles and served as his department's chairman for a number of years.

"I was fortunate to have had him my freshman year at Goucher for a history class," said Marilyn Warshawsky, chairwoman of the Goucher College board of trustees and a board member of Historic Hampton. "He was able to take history and weave it across the world in a way that took you outside the subject and expanded it. Years later, when we became colleagues at Hampton, I felt like I was still learning from him."

After Dr. Lancaster retired, he became a full-time research volunteer at the Hampton National Historic Site, the estate once owned by the Ridgely family that encompassed 24,000 acres. Its grounds once comprised a self-sufficient community with forges and fields supporting a 33-room Georgian residence built in 1790. It was home to more than 300 slaves, who helped build the mansion, dig its tiered garden and work its iron forge.

Dr. Lancaster investigated the 1829 estate inventory of Charles Carnan Ridgely, who had freed more than 100 slaves. Dr. Lancaster attempted to determine what happened to the freed slaves and identify their offspring.

"I'm not going to live long enough to do it," he predicted in a 1996 Sun interview. "What we hope to do is ferret out the descendants of the Ridgely slaves."

His task proved daunting.

"He did a very thorough job of going through the records, but he always felt there was a lot more work to be done by younger scholars," said Lynne Dakin Hastings, Hampton's curator, who lives in Cockeysville. "He generated volumes of information. He had his own little table in the National Park Service office here and he read miles of microfilm."

He had a special interest in cataloging Hampton's collection of 5,000 historic photographs and identifying the people in them.

"He was an excellent detective who had a razor-sharp intellect. Things would bother him until he could figure them out. He was intellectually provoking, too. He pushed us on the staff to find answers," Ms. Hastings said.

She said he also had a "quirky wit" and once constructed a pink flamingo that he inserted into a display of foods at an 1815 dining room table. The flamingo sported a wreath of dried cranberries and stood on an arrangement of lima beans and Brussels sprouts.

Dr. Lancaster also researched the families buried in Green Mount and Old Saint Paul's cemeteries in Baltimore.

Survivors include his wife of 43 years, the former Evelyn Henderson; a son, Dr. Luke Lancaster of Crozet, Va.; a daughter, Jean Lancaster of Baltimore; a brother, Bruce Lancaster of Alexandria, Va.; and three grandchildren.

No funeral is planned.

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