St. Mary’s Unearths Evidence of Its Slave-laden Past - Higher Education
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St. Mary’s Unearths Evidence of Its Slave-laden Past

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by Catherine Morris

Walking across the athletic fields at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, nothing looks out of the ordinary. To the casual observer, the scene is unremarkable, other than the picturesque beauty of the landscape of southern Maryland, with its gentle hills and forests.

In the summer of 2016, the college commissioned an archaeological team to examine the site of a proposed athletic stadium complex. Soon, the team began finding pottery sherds, pieces of glass, clay tobacco pipes and other indicators that there had been houses on the site at some point.

Students excavate the remains of what could be slave quarters beneath the athletic fields at St. Mary’s College. (Photo courtesy of St. Mary’s College of Maryland)

The land around St. Mary’s College is steeped in history. Where the public honors college now stands was once the original capital of colonial Maryland, St. Mary’s City, before it was relocated to what became present-day Annapolis in 1695. As a result, the campus and its surroundings are unusually rich in archaeological remains, so much so that half of the former St. Mary’s City, which is now designated as an unincorporated community, is a living museum. The other half belongs to St. Mary’s College, which serves nearly 2,000 undergraduate students in a bucolic setting by the Chesapeake Bay.

Once the team had physical evidence of the existence of dwellings beneath the athletic fields, they began to comb through written records to gain a better understanding of what these might have been. An Orphan’s Court evaluation in 1829 gives evidence that there were two log quarters on the site that fell in and out of use over the decades leading up to the Civil War.

Slavery was interwoven with the landscape of southern Maryland, where more than half of the population was African- American on the eve of the Civil War. From the middle of the 18th century up until the Civil War, the land where St. Mary’s College sits was a plantation, cultivated with slave labor. The quarters, then, were most likely inhabited by enslaved people.

“At least one or two families would have lived in each dwelling, depending on the size,” says Dr. Julia A. King, a professor of archaeology at St. Mary’s.

King, who led the excavations in the athletic fields, is a well-known archaeologist who has studied the Chesapeake region for decades. One of the earliest sites inhabited by European settlers in North America, southern Maryland is a nexus for many of the cultural influences that shaped present-day America. It was home to thriving Native American populations, was riven by religious strife between Catholics and Protestants up until the 19th century, and its lands were cultivated with the labor of people brought to the Americas as slaves. Through a combination of written records and archaeological remains, researchers and archaeologists like King can put together a comprehensive picture of the past.

“We can’t see what people did, so we’re constructing these stories about what happened,” King says. “We hope our stories are accurate, and as we get more information, we can readjust them.”

Even as archaeological excavations help uncover more of the region’s complicated history, another figure in the St. Mary’s community is working to explore the college’s past from a different angle.

That person is Kent Randell, the school archivist. Randell began his career as an IT specialist with a penchant for genealogy. St. Mary’s, with its complex past, offers an archivist a broad scope for his or her work.

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From the time of its founding in 1840 up until 1927, the college was known as St. Mary’s Female Seminary. “Everybody knows that the seminary probably owned slaves, but no one could find evidence of it,” Randell tells Diverse. At least, not until he began sifting through the evidence. In its early days, the seminary operated out of two buildings, one of which was Calvert Hall, which was consumed by a fire in 1924, taking with it many of the school’s written records. Today, Randell works in the basement archives beneath present-day Calvert Hall, the main administrative building, which is within the foundations of the original building that burned.

Some records were sent to the state archives in Annapolis, but the loss of the records in the 1924 fire has greatly complicated Randell’s work. Another fire in 1871 consumed the home of a member of the board of trustees, destroying the trustees’ minute book for the period between 1858 and 1871. Three local courthouses also burned over the years, destroying records that might have shed further light on the history of the college.

“There are a lot of challenges to understanding the college’s past,” Randell acknowledges.

Despite the roadblocks, Randell found his breakthrough when he began investigating Schedule 1 of the 1850 census, which listed the names of the students, principal and steward of St. Mary’s Female Seminary. Randell found that the school’s steward, one Priscilla Greenwell, was also listed on Schedule 2 of the same census.

In the years before the Civil War, the Maryland census was recorded in two “schedules.” Schedule 1 listed freed persons, while Schedule 2 listed the enslaved. Schedule 2, however, did not list the names of the enslaved, but identified them simply by the names of their owners or the persons responsible for them.

In Schedule 2, Greenwell’s name is listed alongside six un-named people, including men, women and a child, suggesting that these six individuals belonged to her. This raised questions for Randell. A person owning six slaves in 1850 would have been a person of some financial standing. Greenwell, however, was not, according to Randell’s genealogical research. She was married twice, and when her husbands passed away, they left her with little more than their debts.

Then there is the question of her age. At the time of the 1850 census, she was in her sixties and still employed as the steward of the seminary. “Priscilla was 62 years old, so if she was a woman of means, she would not have had a job,” Randell says. Even more conclusively, Greenwell does not appear in the 1849 county tax assessment as the owner of six slaves.

In all probability, then, the seminary owned the slaves, and Greenwell was listed on Schedule 2 by virtue of her standing as the head of the domicile. “Using those three pieces of evidence together, I am confident in stating publicly that these six people were absolutely owned by the seminary,” Randell says.

Randell’s find is remarkable, but many questions remain. Since Schedule 2 did not record the names of enslaved people, the identities of the seminary’s slaves have quite literally been written out of history. Without their names, it is close to impossible to reconstruct any information about their lives and figure out whether they might have any surviving descendants.

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“It could very well be that the names of the people are not written down anywhere,” Randell says. “I have to accept that possibility.”

Yet that does not mean that the search is over. Randell plans to comb through all available collections of county correspondence in the hopes of finding a document that might shed light on who these people were. He likens his search to looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, but he is intent on the hunt.

“That’s just the way history goes sometimes,” Randell says, “You dig, and you dig, and you dig, and then when you think you’re done digging, you dig some more.”

Social and historical context

St. Mary’s College is one of many colleges and universities currently exploring its ties to slavery and the slave trade. The college is not unique in having owned slaves.

Many southern institutions were operated with slave labor, either through the work of enslaved people the institutions owned directly, or through their contracted labor. Northern schools founded by the fortunes derived from the slave trade or slavery were no less complicit in the economic web of slavery.

So far, more than a dozen institutions have publicly recognized their connection with that past. Georgetown University is arguably at the forefront of the effort to untangle and make amends for its complicated history.

The university’s origins, much like St. Mary’s, are inextricably linked to the institution of slavery. In 1838, the Jesuit priests who ran Georgetown decided to sell 272 slaves owned by the university to Catholic landowners in southern Louisiana.

At the time of the sale, the slaves were working on plantations in southern Maryland, coincidentally not far from present-day St. Mary’s College. The plantations were deemed to be no longer profitable, and, despite some moral misgivings, the Jesuit leaders of the institution decided the sale was necessary to ensure the survival of their institution.

The slaves were all but forgotten to history up until 2015, when university president Dr. John J. DeGioia established a working group to explore this past. At the time, it was believed that the 272 slaves soon died after arriving in Louisiana, leaving no descendants.

Richard Cellini, an alumnus of Georgetown, recalls feeling dissatisfied by that explanation at the time. He suspected that the university might have allowed some of the truth to slip between the cracks and decided to interrogate the story further.

To that end, he established a nonprofit, the Georgetown Memory Project, and contracted a team of genealogists to see what they could turn up.

“What’s important is the truth, because the truth has a staying power of its own,” Cellini says.

Working on parallel tracks with professors at Georgetown, the Georgetown Memory Project found that, contrary to the accepted story, the slaves had survived the move to southern Louisiana. Many of their descendants still live in the Louisiana bayou, close by the plantations where they were sent to work. So far, the Georgetown Memory Project has identified 212 of the 272 slaves by their first and last names and 5,885 of their descendants.

“You don’t have to be virtuous to do this,” Cellini says. “You don’t have to be a saint. If we wait for the saints or the virtuous to do this, it will never happen.”

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Cellini says that he is an unlikely person to be concerned with questions of social justice, as a self-identified Republican and chief executive officer of a data analytics company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Yet the more he has explored this issue, the more he believes that Georgetown owes the descendants of the slaves it sold some form of reparation.

“These universities put a lot of time and effort putting these people into slavery, so let’s see them put at least an equal amount into reversing some of the impacts of slavery,” Cellini says.

Georgetown is, in fact, in the process of attempting to atone for its past. The university announced in fall 2016 that it would offer legacy preference in the admissions process to the descendants. That does not mean they will be guaranteed admission, however, and many may not want to attend Georgetown, for any number of reasons. Yet, even with the caveats, Georgetown has set an important precedent, Cellini believes.

“That is an enormous step, and the first time any institution that I’m aware of, beyond a PR level, has taken some measure of responsibility,” Cellini says. “So the needle just moved there.”

Facing the past

Although the story of St. Mary’s is different in many respects from that of Georgetown, it too is attempting to reconcile its past with its present.

“It’s been a very thoughtful and deliberate process,” Randell says.

Certainly St. Mary’s has made no attempt to brush aside its past. Over the winter, the college presented some of its findings in a gallery display on campus. The display included a pair of slave shackles found in the region, which were given to the college by anonymous donors over the summer.

“When all of this stuff came out — the finds, the shackles and the slaves that were found to be owned by the campus — it gave me pause,” says Dr. Tuajuanda Jordan, president of St. Mary’s College. “I think it’s because we know we’re in historic St. Mary’s City, but we never really realized (the implications of being) in historic St. Mary’s City. Even with all of this history, it’s like there’s an invisible wall around the college.”

Jordan became president of the college in 2014, previously serving as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of chemistry at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon. Although she is a relatively recent transplant to southern Maryland, the issues the college is grappling with touch her personally.

“I’m an African-American female, and I have this history in my background,” Jordan says. “Some people forget that I have that history, and so they’re going through the emotional part of it, saying that the administration doesn’t understand. They forget who is on their administration.”

Jordan wants the college to address its past in a thoughtful manner that situates the college’s unique identity and history within a broader dialogue about these issues happening at the state and national level. To that end, the college formed a commission to determine how best to commemorate its past.

“We don’t want to be a school where when these things that come up that show the dark side of your history … we don’t want to hide them,” Jordan says. “We want them out there, and [to] use them as teaching opportunities for our students and the broader community.”

Catherine Morris can be reached at cmorris@diverseeducation.com

  • This story also appears in the June 15, 2017 print edition of Diverse.

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