MS. REBECCA SHEIR
While we're on the subject of dirt, earlier this year shovels in hand, archaeologists from the University of Maryland spent several weeks on the Eastern shore where they engaged in some scientific trial and error. They were digging for the first time in Easton, Md., in an African American neighborhood called The Hill.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
The very first U.S. census way back in 1790 proves that Easton is one of the oldest African American communities in the nation and as Tara Boyle tells us those university archaeologists are working with local residents to peel back layers of this neighborhood's nearly forgotten history.
MS. TARA BOYLE
When you’re an archaeologist, you get used to digging and digging and digging some more and coming up with not much. But every once in a while, you hit the jackpot.
MS. KATE DEELEY
You can see it's in two pieces here, the bottom which is pretty corroded unfortunately but it's oxidized and turned green, but you can see from the top that at one point it used to be sort of that gold color.
Kate Deeley is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, Where we're standing in a sun-filled lab packed with filing cabinets and boxes of artifacts. She shows me two pieces of what is clearly a very old button.
It’s got the eagle, the seal and the arrows on one side and olive branch on the other.
This button, she says, was produced during the late 19th century.
And would've been an officer in the U.S. Army's uniform.
Deeley and her colleagues believe this button belonged to an African-American buffalo soldier named William Gardner. And until a few months ago it was buried deep in the backyard of a dilapidated house on "the Hill." Now, this tiny artifact is a symbol of how this neighborhood is rediscovering its past.
MR. MARK LEONE
The Hill is a captivating place, I mean, it's beautiful.
Mark Leone has done archaeology all over our region for decades. The professor anthropology at the University of Maryland oversaw the work on "the Hill" and he says it was unlike any other dig he's done before, for one key reason.
It was a winner. It was a winner from beginning to end. I've never seen an African-American community own an archaeological site like this. I mean, they grow up on it and around it shooting marbles and there folks who are walking in every day, wanting to know how their archaeology was.
One of those keen to watch this archaeology unfold was Carlene Phoenix. She spent part of her childhood on the Hill and these days she's the president of the preservation group Historic Easton. She recently took me on a tour of the neighborhood.
MS. CARLENE PHOENIX
This was our comfort zone, everything was here. I think we only had to venture out for shoes and clothes. So we had barbers and beauticians and we had grocery stores and clubs for children and taxi stands. Everything was here for us.
As we walked through quiet streets of modest single-family homes, it quickly became clear that those businesses are all gone.
The vacant lot here was a site of what was known as the Brawn Co. Theatre was an African American movie theater. Unfortunately, we weren't able to save it.
But Phoenix says even with all the Hill has lost, this neighborhood is still remarkable.
We're family and so when we see one another, we acknowledge each other and we're just overly friendly people here in Easton.
And as with any family, some stories get passed down and others are forgotten. Local historian Priscilla Morris says one of the forgotten pieces has to do with the Hill’s origins.
MS. PRISCILLA MORRIS
If you look at the U.S. Census, the first census in 1790, you see it was a densely populated area with free African-Americans and many of the surnames are the same family names of people who live here now. So it's a long tenure.
That tenure may put the Hill in competition for the title of oldest African-American community in the U.S., a title that currently belongs to the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans. And Morris says there are other intriguing questions yet to be answered about the Hill.
For example, how did such a large community of free African-Americans survive and thrive in a region so entrenched in slavery? And is it possible these free African Americans may have helped Harriet Tubman ferry slaves to freedom as part of the Underground Railroad?
It's going to take qualified scholars to take a look at that question. But it's a question worth asking, given the density of the free population here. It certainly would be a comforting place for someone making an escape to find some help.
Answering these questions will take a fair bit of sleuthing and Morris and other researchers have been poring over land records and genealogical info for clues. In the meantime, Carlene Phoenix says all this interest in the past means a lot for the Hill's future.
This neighborhood, everybody just considered this the blighted neighborhood, the neighborhood where there's the crime is high and the drug dealers stand on the corner. But now that people know the history and they're seeing the interest, then it just gives them pride to say, okay I'm living in a neighborhood that is not what society says that it is.
Back at the University of Maryland doctoral student Kate Deeley is rifling through clear plastic bags of artifacts collected at the Easton dig. She pulls out a sack full of multicolored marbles.
We have some that are made out of glass, which sound the way you'd expect marbles to sound. And then these two here are ceramic marbles.
Over the winter Deeley and other researchers will analyze all the artifacts they pulled out of the ground in Easton. Professor Mark Leone says they're also building a database with the names of slaves who lived in the area so that modern-day residents can begin to fill in the missing pieces of their own stories and of the Hill's history.
Are any of these descendants alive on the Hill? Well, that's for people on the Hill to look for. That's not an assignment, that's a request they themselves have made.
And as residents begin work on that task Leone and his team will return to the Hill next summer, to dig and dig and dig some more in a process that may just uncover some of this area's long-buried secrets. I'm Tara Boyle.
You can link to that database of slave names and see photos of some of the artifacts recovered at the Hill on our website, metroconnection.org.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.