EASTON, Md. – Some were the freed slaves of conscience-stricken Quakers. Others were freed by a sea captain in his will. Still others were freed by a slave midwife who bought freedom for herself and her family.
Together, in Talbot County on Marylands Eastern Shore, they may have given birth to what scholars suspect could be the oldest enclave of free blacks and possibly the oldest existing black neighborhood, in the country.
Its the oldest free-black, African-American neighborhood in the country that has been continuously inhabited and still in existence, said Dale Green, an assistant professor in the Department of Architecture at Morgan State University.
The neighborhood is called the Hill, and this month a team of archaeologists and anthropologists dug for its story in the backyard of the local womens club.
Scholars think the Hill may predate, by years, New Orleans famous neighborhood Treme, often described as the countrys oldest black community.
In 1790, there were 410 free persons of color who lived on what we know as the Hill, Green said last week.
The Hill had the largest concentration of free blacks in the Chesapeake region, he said.
What you have in the name of the Hill is a real, rare, intact, continuously occupied and inhabited black neighborhood.
Treme celebrated its bicentennial in 2012, though its founding is sometimes dated to 1810, and its roots likely go back further.
But Green said, Treme is far younger than what were working with here.
The project, a collaboration between, among others, Morgan State and the University of Maryland, started about four years ago with a study for the community of the history of the Hills black churches.
When we finished that, they were like, We hate to see you guys go, Green said. Thats when they pull this card out, like, You know, this neighborhoods old.
Whats old? Green said the researchers asked.
The community members responded: We dont know. We want you guys to define how old old is.
Green and his colleagues began to look.
The thing about Talbot County is, its rich in history, said Carlene Phoenix, president of Historic Easton, who lobbied for the neighborhood research. But when it comes to especially African-American history, it was always about slavery. But now weve got another story.
The project researchers found that many Talbot County slaves were freed after the abolitionist Quaker preacher John Woolman came through Easton in 1766, urging fellow Friends to abandon slavery.
Easton sea captain Jeremiah Banning, who bought his 21 slaves in Senegal, freed them in his will.
And the researchers came upon the story of a slave, Grace Brooks, who bought her freedom and that of her children and grandchildren with money she earned as a midwife.
Many of these now-free blacks probably made their way to the Hill, which was fast becoming an island of liberty surrounded by plantations, Green said.
At the dig site Wednesday, experts and students dug into rectangular excavation pits, scraping away layers of dirt and scrutinizing soil color for clues to what might be buried.
Several finds grabbed the teams attention.
One was a large, copper 1794 one-cent piece, bearing an image of Lady Liberty and a freedom cap. Such caps traditionally designated a slaves emancipation, University of Maryland doctorate student Stefan Woehlke said.
In this case, the cap signified U.S. freedom from Great Britain, Woehlke said. But he wondered: Is it something that, to the free African-American community, had a deeper significance than just the national independence from Britain?
Youve got a lot of unsung heroes here, Green said. Everybody knows about Frederick Douglass. But well in advance of Frederick Douglass, we have persons like Grace Brooks.
The former slave, who after buying her freedom moved to the Hill in 1788 and bought a home, became so well regarded in Easton that she merited a rare obituary when she died in 1810, he said.
The three-week dig, which ended Friday, focused on a property where three anonymous blacks lived, according to the 1790 U.S. census, Green said.
We knew that if we could get to this site, we could get to some earlier 1700s material culture, he said.
But little is known about the three.
We dont know if they were women, Green said. We dont know if they were men. We just know they were free and they were black.