My students and I stepped out of the blustery wind into the Historical Society of Talbot County’s Museum, where the slavery exhibit was our destination. As part of our school’s Black History Month celebration, we were on a scavenger hunt through Easton. Students used their smartphones to find the first all-black high school in Talbot County, a ship’s log detailing the return of former slaves from Maryland back to Liberia, and the segregated seating area of the Avalon Theatre.
At the Historical Society Museum, students compared a blown up photograph of Easton’s courthouse from the mid-1800s to one they had just taken in front of the Frederick Douglass statue. The former showed a gathering of people, presumably at market, bidding on slaves.
We were drawn to the log listed alongside the courthouse picture which showed the age and price of each slave. Some of the 20-something men went for $900. A 2-year old was priced at $50. I have child who is nearly two. I had to turn away from my students, trying to swallow my tears.
With accounts like these, and tales of the brutality that Frederick Douglass suffered only a few miles away, it was hard to continue on our journey through the streets of Easton without taking in the ghosts of the past. This town, with its farming roots and southern proximity, held many painful stories.
Our next destination, however, seemed to contradict what we had seen thus far: The Hill, a few blocks of Easton thought to be the oldest African-American neighborhood in the country. Though the neighborhood may date back as early as 1790 (a full 70 years before the Civil War), it was reportedly comprised of free African Americans.
This neighborhood, which begins at Hanson Street and ends at Rails to Trails, running from Dover to Talbot Street, has a long and rich history. In addition to its roots as a safe haven for freed slaves or those who had served out their indenture, The Hill also boasts the first African-American church congregation on the Eastern Shore, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. According to local historian and genealogist Missy Corley, Frederick Douglass spoke at the original rostrum, which can still be found in the church today.
As we walked along Hanson Street noting some of the old brick houses with their outbuildings, students ran to snap pictures of the church. We couldn’t help but wonder, in an area where slave accounts are cruel and numerous, how did such a neighborhood exist?
According to the Historical Society's Museum Curator, Beth Hansen, there is another side to Talbot County’s slave history. “Talbot County was located in a slave state, but also had a large number of abolitionists - mostly Quakers. The Quakers began to free their slaves around the time of the American Revolution, and it is thanks to them that we had a significant ‘free black’ population.”
Several historians and archeologists from nearby universities, including Dr. Dale Green of Morgan State University, are venturing to Easton this summer for a dig to verify the dating of The Hill. They will look for artifacts at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church that corroborate the 1790 date of the neighborhood, which would solidify it as the country’s oldest African-American neighborhood.
Nearby, the house of an African-American soldier from the Civil War sits on South Street. A late-1800s military-issue button was found at the site that most likely belonged to William Gardner, a so-called Buffalo Soldier. His family owned the home, a weathered cedar-shake house that I had driven by many times unaware.
The mood had picked up and my students were now carting each other down the street on piggyback. We finished our hunt and walked back to the library, crossing through the courthouse lawn, where the image of Frederick Douglass’s bronze hand was raised above us.
*With historical background assistance from Missy Corley and her Bayside Blog.