On Monday the story behind the archaeological dig in Easton, Md. was making the national news channels.
The excitement is over the finding of evidence that tells the story of a community of free African-Americans, discovered through bits of glass, shards of pottery and oyster shells. The site, commonly known as “The Hill,” is owned by the Talbott County Women’s Club.
Archaeologists and historians from Maryland and Morgan State Universities as well as local groups are conducting a three-week dig of the site, and the deeper they dig, the further back into history they go.
According to Morgan State professor Dale Green, who is helping lead the excavation, “What makes this unique is it’s the oldest remaining African American neighborhood where free blacks lived continuously and is still in existence.”
What makes this site so intriguing is that this settlement may turn out to surpass Treme in New Orleans, recognized as the oldest free black community in the nation, dating to 1812. “It’s not just a black story. It’s an American story,” said Green, noting the group plans to spend as long as five years at the site.
Free black communities in the Chesapeake region
Former slaves founded settlements such as The Hill, where they were able to enjoy emancipation, property ownership and the right to go into business for themselves. Many had bought their freedom, and many more were freed by the Quakers and Methodists on the Eastern Shore.
Historians say The Hill could have been the largest community of free blacks in the Chesapeake region. During the first census in 1790, some 410 free African-Americans were recorded living on The Hill.
At that time, there were 250 free blacks living in nearby Baltimore, and 346 slaves living at nearby Wye House Plantation, where abolitionist Frederick Douglass was enslaved as a child. The house where the excavation is taking place dates to at least 1793. It was owned in 1800 by a white man named James Price, and was home to three free non-white residents, according to the 1800 Census.
Artifacts tell the story of life in early America
The first few inches of the dig revealed 20th century life, marbles, pipe stems and toys. Going deeper into the site, 19th century evidence began to appear. Stefan Woehlke, a University of Maryland graduate student who is the site’s director, commented on an olive-green glass bottle with a decorative cluster of grapes on one side. It was likely used to hold wine, The technique used to make it, hand-blown using a mold, dates it to the late 18th or early 19th century.
Other artifacts include bits of pottery dating to the early 1800s, and a one-cent coin featuring Lady Liberty that dates to 1794. Most interesting was the finding of evidence of nail making and raising chickens on the land. This is indicative of commerce rather than something a property owner would be engaged in.
Woehlke has said the work on the site is like piecing together a puzzle. This particular puzzle is all the more interesting because it is revealing a little bit more of our story, the story of America and its people, black and white.