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Unearthing Slavery, Finding Peace

Unearthing Slavery, Finding Peace
A Dig at an Eastern Shore Plantation Could Help Local Blacks See Their Past

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 21, 2006; Page B01

Mary Tilghman watches from her window as archaeologists sift the earth of Wye House Farm, her Eastern Shore property. Buttons and an iron ring, pig bones and a broken spoon: Over three centuries, her family helped the growth of a new American economy and, on this plantation, built an empire on the backs of slaves.

This is where the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass lived for a couple of years, as a child slave of about 7. The work confirms his descriptions of the physical place to a fault, animating the landscape with his words: "Though crimes, high-handed and atrocious, may there be committed . . . it is, nevertheless . . . a most strikingly interesting place, full of life."

Tilghman welcomed this search of her land and family records. Now 87, the 11th-generation heir to Wye House has "always been interested in the history of this place," she said. But until now, the stories of hundreds of people who lived steps from her front door have lain under a carpet of emerald turf, their names stowed in boxes of family ledgers, with notes gauging their fitness for work.

Down the road, in the hamlet of Unionville, Harriette Lowery waits for her lost history to emerge from the clay and the files. The ancestors of Unionville once toiled at Wye House Farm, and some of their descendants work there today.

After the Civil War, Unionville was founded on plots granted by a sympathetic landowner. Lowery's cousin works in Tilghman's home, and Lowery sees nothing wrong in that. But she wants the generation coming up to know how things were long ago on that land, in all its detail, and to be proud.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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