Maryland Archaeologists Dig Up Remains
Of Free-Standing Black Community
COLLEGE PARK, Md.
University of Maryland archaeologists are unearthing the remains of a little-known middle-class African American community in Annapolis, Md., that goes back to 1832. They hope to learn how this community managed to remain intact and endure the pressures of a hostile world for 150 years. The archaeologists held public tours of the site through early August.
Free African Americans established the community and bought freedom for their relatives who were slaves. Eventually, about 30 families owned houses. “They were the anchors that made it possible for this community to sustain itself economically and socially,” says Mark Leone, the University of Maryland archaeologist directing the project. “The people who owned these homes were professionals — doctors, entrepreneurs. At the turn of the last century they supported a community grocery store, because that was the only way to get a fair shake,” Leone says.
The community grew along Franklin Street where the Banneker-Douglass Museum now stands. Over the past two decades, Leone’s team has excavated nearly 40 sites in the historic district. The current site — an empty lot adjacent to the museum — is the final location to be excavated. Leone says it may hold some of the most important clues to the way the community survived slavery and Jim Crow segregation. Eventually, the community began moving to the Annapolis suburbs in the 1960s.
Next month, the archaeologists will complete the dig, and construction workers will begin work at the site on an addition to the museum. In 1990, Leone’s team began collecting oral histories from people who remembered the community as it was through the 20th century. They also drew on the extensive records preserved by families, showing how people gained their freedom. “The level of precise, certifiable knowledge about the residents of that community is astonishing,” says Eric Larsen, a university doctoral student on Leone’s team. “We know it sustained itself through harsh times, but not details of how it was done. We are literally digging the answers out of the ground.”
The material they are unearthing will be analyzed when the excavation is completed next month. So far, the archaeologists have found that families owned matched sets of dishes. “This follows the custom of the White world, not the African way,” Larsen says. “Perhaps they adopted a White veneer to dispel racist stereotypes that were so common. We’ll know better when the analysis is complete.” Excavations of homes nearby revealed that poorer neighbors followed African traditions.
The project involves a unique partnership joining African American community members, the museum and the university. “You won’t find something like this anywhere else,” Leone says. “Digs simply don’t involve people from Black communities — certainly not in the way this project is operating. It is a true collaboration.” Among those participating is an Annapolis high school student who has been trained to dig side by side with the archaeologists. He’s also conducting public tours.
Funding for the excavations comes from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, the Maryland Historical Trust, the Banneker-Douglass Museum, and the Maryland Commission on African-American History and Culture. Additional support has come from the Historic Annapolis Foundation. The Maryland Humanities Council sponsored the public presentations.
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