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Oldest Community Of Free African Americans Unearthed In Maryland

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Archaeologists from the University of Maryland and Morgan State University returned this summer to Easton, Md. to dig on "The Hill," believed to be the nation's oldest neighborhood of free African Americans.
Tara Boyle
Archaeologists from the University of Maryland and Morgan State University returned this summer to Easton, Md. to dig on "The Hill," believed to be the nation's oldest neighborhood of free African Americans.

Researchers say they're uncovering evidence that a neighborhood in Easton, Md. may be the oldest community of free African Americans in the United States.

The neighborhood is called "The Hill," and is believed to date back to at least the late 1700s.

A group of archaeologists from the University of Maryland and Morgan State University recently spent several weeks in the neighborhood, digging in the backyard of a brick home belonging to the Talbot County Women's Club.

The University of Maryland's Stefan Wolke, who led the dig, took WAMU on a tour of the site.

"What you're looking at here is essentially a checkerboard pattern of archaeological excavation units, so we have large 5-foot square holes, spread out in this portion of the yard," says Wolke.

More than two centuries ago, this property belonged to a white man named James Price. Three free African Americans also lived here, and Wolke says the artifacts pulled from the ground this summer — including pieces of handmade nails and slag — suggest those free African Americans had a small blacksmith operation in this backyard.

Uncovered clues

That operation likely dates back to at least the 1790s, Wolke says. Researchers came to that preliminary conclusion because in later years, nails were mostly made by machines, not by hand.

It's a small clue, but Wolke says it adds to the evidence that The Hill is "quite possibly the oldest free African American neighborhood or community in the country."

That prospect is tantalizing to Mark Leone, a professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland. He's led decades of archaeological work in our region, including on The Hill over the past two years.

"This is a community of hundreds and hundreds of free people with the resources to form an integrated, self-sustaining community seeking for freedom, seeking to maintain their own, and I frankly bet that helped to energize two modern heroes," he says.

Those two heroes Leone is talking about are Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass — former slaves who became leaders in the abolitionist movement. He says the relationship between Tubman, Douglass, and the hundreds of free African Americans who lived on the Hill isn't fully understood, but it's one of the intriguing mysteries for researchers from the University of Maryland and Morgan State.

"We're new to the Hill. We need better maps... better combinations of census records and maps, better prospecting," he says.

In other words, Leone says, they're just getting.

Closer to the goal

For now, at least, the digging on the Hill is finished for another year.

Morgan State graduate student Britney Hutchinson participated in digs in the neighborhood for the past two years, and says the team has made good progress.

"I think now we have an understanding that there is a lot of really valuable archaeology here, and I believe this year we've covered more ground as far as digging goes."

Mark Leone agrees, and says these three weeks of digging have brought researchers one step closer to their larger goal.

"African Americans and white folks in Talbot County have always worked together to create a common culture," he says. "Our job is to demonstrate not that it exists — everyday life down here proves it exists — but when did it start, and what are the conditions?"

Photos: The Hill

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