Telling stories once ignored

Historical sites try to add discussion of slaves' lives

April 14, 2007|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

For years, visitors marveled over the lushly furnished mansion, the elaborate gardens and the luxurious lives of the inhabitants, with their horse races and imported wines.

But they learned little about the lives of the hundreds of slaves at what is now the Hampton National Historic Site in Towson - the men, women and children whose sweat made the estate grand.

While the mansion had been preserved, the few remaining slave quarters were not open to visitors until last fall. In fact, they were used for storage. Now, in an effort to tell about the lives of all the estate's residents, the stone quarters have been restored as part of an exhibit about the lives of slaves that opened to the public yesterday.

At a symposium at Goucher College yesterday, speakers mentioned the site as they discussed the importance - and the challenges - of teaching about slavery at historic sites.

"If we don't explore the fundamental questions about the enslaved, then we are doing the public an injustice," said Lonnie G. Bunch III, the symposium's keynote speaker and the director of the yet-to-be-built National Museum of African American History and Culture.

For decades, guides at historic homes across the South glossed over the issue of slavery. In recent years, more of an effort has been made to provide information about slavery, yet the exhibits often fail to broach the centrality of slavery to early American life, the interdependent relationships between slaves, free blacks and whites, and slavery's continuing legacy, Bunch said.

"As museums develop in the 21st century, we want to give the best that we can give in terms of the complete story," said Dianne Swann-Wright, the curator of the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park in Fells Point and a speaker at the symposium. "We're not just satisfied talking about the furniture, talking about the person whose name is on the deed."

Slavery exhibits have become a bigger part of the experience at Mount Vernon, George Washington's former plantation, and Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's former home, both in Virginia.

At Mount Vernon, museum "interpreters" give daily tours of slaves' quarters and go over what slaves wore and ate, said museum spokeswoman Stephanie Brown. In the fall, the museum opened a new education center that includes an exhibit, The Dilemma of Slavery, that features videotaped interviews of scholars and descendants of Washington's slaves, Brown said. The museum also is reconstructing a slave cabin on a farming area near the mansion.

At Monticello, a slave cook's living area in the main mansion was recently reconstructed, said spokesman Wayne Mogielnicki. The project complements the museum's presentation on slave life, which for several years has featured tours of the former site of Mulberry Row, where many slaves lived and worked.

Built in the late 1700s and inhabited by six generations of the Ridgely family, Hampton Mansion has been run by the National Park Service since 1979. The original estate encompassed about 25,000 acres, including the land where Goucher College is located.

Through ledgers, diaries and letters, scholars have created a detailed portrait of the family that lived in the mansion during its heyday. But little is known about the slaves that lived there at that time.

"For Hampton, there's no account of what it was like to be a slave here," said park ranger Kirby Shedlowski. "What the slaves' lives were like, we really don't know."

Although no known narratives written by slaves at Hampton exist, the park's staff gleaned information from other documents. According to the exhibit, records show that Charles Carnan Ridgely owned more than 350 slaves at the time of his death in 1829, at a time when most county slave owners kept fewer than five. Upon his death, he freed nearly 300 slaves, although his son later bought about 60 more.

Documents list food - corn, herring, bacon - and clothing that the Ridgelys parceled out to slaves.

A teenage daughter, Eliza "Didy" Ridgely, kept a list of Christmas gifts that she gave to the children who lived on the plantation in the early 1840s. Elsewhere, she writes of a fishing trip: "Even the little black servants are taken out with us as a great treat and while we are eating our dinners they are allowed to fish for themselves or for us."

Only two slave quarters remain on the Hampton property. The newly renovated building is located a stone's throw from what was once the overseer's house. Two families probably occupied the small building that was divided duplex style. Guides think that occupants cooked at large hearths downstairs and slept upstairs.

Posters that describe the lives of Hampton's slaves hang in one room. Another room holds a re-creation of how the living quarters may have once looked.

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