Thousands of documents, some documenting the auction and sale of black American slaves, made their way to the auction block before black historians and community members stepped in to reclaim ownership of their past.
“It was important for the community because it will connect the dots for the people and the younger generation, to let them know how things were. To move forward, you have to see what the past looked like, ”said Carolyn Brooks, community historian with the Chesapeake Heartland Project.
Approximately 2,000 pages from the late 1600s to the early 1800s were found in a plastic garbage bag in the attic of a 200-year-old house near Chestertown, Md., While the owner, Nancy Bordely Lane, was cleaning it this spring. The foundations of the house, built in 1803 on a property that has been in the family since 1667, were reportedly damaged and the structure was to be demolished. The documents were intended for the trash, but were collected and delivered to Dixon’s Crumpton Auction in waxed seafood boxes, John Chaski, an expert in ancient manuscripts, told the Washington Post.
Darius Johnson, a Washington College alumnus, was one of many who saw photos of the documents on the auction house’s Facebook page. After returning from Baltimore to Kent County, Johnson joined the Chesapeake Heartland Project at Washington College, working with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and local partners. For him, the documents could not have appeared at a better time.
“This project started giving me pieces of myself and who I am and it’s something I couldn’t be more grateful for,” said Johnson, who also works with a local accession initiative. to property for low-income residents, many of whom are black. . Among the documents was a contract to take over a 50-acre farm originally purchased by Solomon Willson, a Free Métis man, in 1802.
“Tying the historical narrative together has been essential because I want black people in Kent County to know that only a generation or two away our people had something – and in that generation or two we have lost that. It’s not that far, it’s achievable, ”he said.
Lane didn’t know how the collection of documents from several different families that were intertwined by the marriage got there or how long it had been there. But while she may not have recognized their importance, members of the black community did, banding together with the college to raise funds and purchase the entire collection. Former Washington College student and administrator Norris Commodore – the first African-American in the local community to graduate from the college and after whom part of the collection bears his name – and his wife, Terry, were part of several black donors who mobilized to buy the entire collection. for a “five-figure” price.
“I love it,” Lane told the Washington Post after learning about the sale. “History must be recognized.”
Part of what makes the documents so rare is that they were from ordinary families, said Adam Goodheart, director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College – from small farmers, shoemakers or carpenters rather than elite or wealthy plantation owners.
“These were people for whom slavery was on a smaller scale, in a more intimate sense,” Goodheart said, adding, “but I think these documents make it clear that the system was no less cruel.”
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Several documents record the sale of enslaved men, women and children. Others, like a financial statement for a young white child, reveal more subtle cruelties, like the purchases of cloth, shoes, and school books she made using earnings from the stolen labor of three slave laborers, including Benjamin. – a child himself.
At the same time, the documents also contain stories of free blacks, some who escaped slavery, and even their relationships with white landowners.
“When you talk about history in this area, it’s colonial history, which is white history and black history is always separate,” said Airlee Ringgold Johnson, community historian at the Chesapeake Heartland Project. “I hope that at some point this country will get to the point where it can recognize that history is history and combine the two stories.”
Airlee, who is related to Darius, went to the auction house to comb through the documents with Goodheart. Its own family history in the region dates back to at least the 1800s, but the records stop there.
“There is a lot of American history that is still hidden in people’s attics, including some incredible African American history, because African American history in particular was not really appreciated by historians and institutions. cultural until recently, ”Goodheart said. “It was considered alien … so these types of documents that show the ordinary day-to-day workings of slavery were viewed either as unimportant or in some cases actively being something to be suppressed, especially by descendants of families of slavers. ”
For the nearly 3,000 black residents of Kent County, however, this story is deeply personal. Amid the documents, Airlee saw the name “Wilson” – a name that ran in her family as well as several others on the East Coast. Sherry Wilson, a free man of color whose name appeared on an inventory found among newspapers, was later convicted and jailed under a state law that prohibited any Marylander from circulating anti-slavery publications ” arsonists ”.
“It’s so disheartening when you look at what we fought for – and we have fought for since we were on this earth – to get out of slavery, what we fought for in rebuilding, Jim Crow, civil rights and now it’s coming back. This continues, the fight we are waging in this country, “said Airlee.
Take “possession of our history”
Much has changed over the centuries since, but the legacy of slavery and systemic racism continues to rob black Americans of their rights. After the police murder of George Floyd last year rekindled civil rights protests, a resurgence of interest in the story has placed emphasis on such findings.
“We are at a point where there is a sort of gold rush on black history. Many museums, libraries and universities are finding that they really need to expand these parts of their collections – and that’s wonderful, but it also means that big sums of money are changing hands for black history in the world. transactions that do not involve blacks. at all, ”Goodheart said.
“I think the moments of acquiring black history should also be opportunities for restitution, redress and empowerment,” he added.
To remedy this, the act for the documents, which are in progress digitally archived for the public, was donated to a black-run nonprofit organization, Sumner Hall, which functions as a museum, educational site, performance stage, social hall and gallery in Chestertown. The college also plans to raise a sum of money equal to the purchase price to fund the teaching of African American history to local youth.
“In the context of black property in Kent County, it always struck me as just what was lost,” Darius said. “To make these papers happen the way they did and own them, the collection named after Commodore… that perception of ownership is really, really powerful to me. It also shows people that we can own our history and therefore our situations and our future. “
Darius, Airlee, Brooks and others from the Chesapeake Heartland Project are passionate about educating their local community, especially young people, to stories like that of Congo Mango, born in Africa, enslaved in Maryland, has obtained his freedom and helped others to become free. . The collection includes a document recording his purchase from a slave named Cato Daws in order to grant his freedom.
Ultimately, many were relieved that their story wasn’t auctioned off like their ancestors once were and would come back to them instead. Sumner Hall board member Doncella Wilson still remembers the Saturday morning she saw the collection in a Facebook post. After seeing the documents in person, she felt the full range of emotions: sadness, anger and connection. Now she’s ready to share the story with the next generation.
“For some families, being able to complete the pieces of the puzzle, being able to see the documents, connect families and gain self-esteem with the documents and a feeling of being on the east coast and knowing that we mean a lot,” she said. “I just hope this will continue education and open the dialogue … in which young people and elders can participate.”
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