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Unearthing a Legacy in Easton

Jun 06, 2013 09:50PM ● By Anonymous

Widely celebrated until the beginning of the 20th century, Juneteenth commemorates the 19th day of the sixth calendar month in 1865, when, two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation, the last remaining slaves in Galveston, Texas, learned of their freedom.

Through the leadership of the Frederick Douglass Honor Society, the Academy Art Museum, and other community organizations, Juneteenth has been revived in Easton in a way that captures its original spirit, highlighting African American experience, especially significant aspects that— through time, accident, or institutional racism—have been overlooked in some fashion.

Everything about Juneteenth 2011 was watershed. Bleachers on Washington Street were filled with families and individuals of all stripes to see “Douglass Returns,” the name of the statue dedication event. Solemn pride emanated from what many attendees averred was the most diverse assembly the town had ever witnessed. Preeminent Douglass scholar and Yale historian David Blight brought tears to many eyes as he recounted Douglass’ experience as a slave in Talbot County.

Douglass, who had cautioned American Blacks against celebrating July 4th because they hadn't yet achieved independence as a group, would no doubt have appreciated being honored on Juneteenth.

These successes progressed further the following Juneteenth, when the quiet decorum of the Academy Museum’s front lawn hosted an overflow crowd. Black and white residents enjoyed gospel choirs, African drums, and children’s readings of the Emancipation Proclamation before forming an impromptu parade, stopping traffic at the major intersection of Harrison and Dover streets. At the Avalon Theatre, several Tuskeegee Airmen, heroes of World War II, were honored, drawing attention to another under recognized chapter in African American history.

This year promises another diverse celebration—the unveiling of a project with great local, and likely national, significance. Friday, June 14th, will kick off a multi-site archaeological project, which could demonstrate that Easton was home to the earliest documented community of free blacks in the country. In contrast to grander homes on Harrison and Hanson streets just a few blocks away, historic pride is not immediately evident in the predominantly African American downtown Easton neighborhood called the Hill. Where historic markers grace some doors and facades of the neighboring area, Hill inhabitants have frequently felt compelled to display “No Trespassing” signs. All Morgan State University Professor Dale Green sees, though, is an illustrious history. The story of the Hill’s origins as what could be the oldest free black center has been obscured over time, Green says.

It has been acknowledged that vessels built in St. Michaels were enlisted in the early 1800s to run a British blockade of the African coast and bring slaves back to the U.S., but another earlier trend created possibilities for African Americans in Talbot County. William Southe by, one of the builders of Easton's Third Haven Meeting House, which was under construction by 1682, is said to have been the first American to write against slavery. Quakers prohibited slaveholding by their members in 1783, and Green says they not only freed their slaves, but deeded property to them on the Hill.A team of archaeologists under the leadership of the University of Maryland archaeologist Mark Leone began a small dig on some Hill property loaned for the purpose last summer, after the papers of a Buffalo Soldier were discovered on the premises.

The team expected to find articles dating to the 1800s, but, Green says, “We found 1700s material.” Although he prefers lab studies be completed before revealing specifics, Green says the artifacts are “very unusual.” With those who own historically significant properties volunteering their land for three additional digs this summer, one at the site of great historic importance—Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the current incarnation of which was completed in 1818—Green believes the project could unearth material dating to the 1600s, putting Easton's free black community well before Lousiana’s Treme, currently considered the oldest such community.

“The first U.S. Census (in 1790) showed 228 African Americans living on the Hill as free blacks,” says Green, who emphasizes the neighborhood’s historic interracial success. “Something unique was going on in Maryland, in Easton. They were hiring themselves out as free blacks. The white community utilized their services. They were working with (each other).” Green has a personal connection to the Hill’s Story. His great great great great grandfather Bishop A.W. Wayman “led Lincoln’s funeral procession” and was the first black minister to give a bible to a U.S. president. Wayman’s brother was pastor at Bethel AME church in the late 1800s.

“All these elements have been floating around in the historical consciousness,” Green says. Until now, though, “no one had connected all the dots” to demonstrate the early importance of the neighborhood created by these freed men and women. Somehow over time, the story of the Hill dissipated until there was little obvious evidence that such an early community had existed. Green points out that African American history has an oral, rather than a written, tradition. The man who planned Easton included the Hill on his map, but there are signs that the neighborhood was later blacked out by his descendents, Green says. It’s visible, though, on other vintage maps.

This year’s Juneteenth aims to bring the Hill’s history front and center. A reception for the archaeological project will take place at Bethel church on June 14th, the first of the two-day Juneteenth celebration. This year’s event also will offer opportunities for residents to record oral histories, learn about local community groups, and enjoy song, dance, and community.

“Juneteenth is a reminder of the reconciliation we need to do in our community,” says organizer Hariette Lowery. “All young people should know the history that people went through. It’s so important to being proud of it and committed to doing better.”

Uniting diverse groups behind the goal of bringing significant aspects of African American experience back into public awareness, Juneteenth and its celebrants also are changing the social landscape that previously kept such stories as the Hill’s from coming fully into the light.