Interpretation at Sotterley Plantation: The Road to Relevance

By Jeanne Pirtle, Education Director, Historic Sotterley, Inc.

Historic Sotterley Plantation has a long history, to be sure. It has also been open to the public as a museum since 1960.  Let’s see, what was happening in the 1960’s? Schools were still segregated. Jim Crow was still alive.  And in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, Sotterley’s last private owner had decided to open Sotterley and create a non-profit so that it could be preserved.  As with most house museums at that time, the early tours focused on the furnishings and lives of the owners with a little legend, lore and myth mixed in.  After the owner’s death in 1993, ownership went to the Sotterley Foundation, which is now Historic Sotterley, Inc.

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In the early 1970’s, a visitor and her father came to the museum.  They paid their two dollars for a tour.  They noticed a slave cabin on the property, but on their tour of the house nothing was mentioned about the slave cabin.  The visitor was Agnes Kane Callum.

Agnes was born in Baltimore in 1925.  She had raised her family while working for the post office. After retirement she earned two degrees from Morgan State University.  She continued to research her family and found a connection to Sotterley.  Her ancestors, Hillary and Elsa Cane, were enslaved there in the 19th century. Agnes made it her passion and mission to have the story of her family told in Sotterley’s narrative. She kept visiting Sotterley with research in hand, bringing large groups of her family and friends with her.  Eventually, Agnes became a trustee on Sotterley’s board and developed an education program for middle school students that is still taught today, Slavery to Freedom.

In 1996, Sotterley was on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “11 Most Endangered” list.  Agnes joined forces with owner descendants to save Sotterley. It was rescued and grant money was used to help restore the house and cabin. For some years, tours focused on this restoration with a few stories of the enslaved, but still it was not a complete and inclusive narrative.

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Sotterley’s slave cabin

In 2010, with grant funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), Sotterley began work on a re-interpretation and developed research-based tours that moved past the romanticism to reveal a realistic view of the plantation’s story seen through different perspectives.  An exhibit in the slave cabin, as well as other projects focused on changing perspectives in interpretation at Sotterley, were assisted by grants from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority.  In 2012, Sotterley was recognized as a port site through the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project (MPCPMP).  In 2014, Land, Lives and Labor became Historic Sotterley Plantation’s first permanent exhibit created to focus on the people who lived and labored for the owners from 1699 into the mid 20th century.  It is housed in the Corn Crib, which was restored using funding from the African American Heritage Preservation Program, administered by MHT and the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture.

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“Land, Lives, and Labor” exhibit, housed in the Corn Crib

Agnes Kane Callum passed away in 2015.  Sotterley will remember her life and legacy as we dedicate the new Slave Cabin exhibit to her memory this April.  This exhibit will focus on the lives of her ancestors, Hillary and Alice Elsa Cane and their children and allow visitors to experience a window into their lives.

At Historic Sotterley, we continue to tell the stories of all who lived and worked here, as we remember our roots and the people who helped us along the way, not just in February, but every day. We welcome every visitor who anticipates a new discovery and finds relevance in our collective past.

Maryland’s Polling Houses: Vanishing Reminders of Elections Past

By Elizabeth Hughes, Director and State Historic Preservation Officer

On November 8th, Marylanders will cast votes in public places ranging from schools, community centers, and libraries to churches, fire houses, and office buildings. In years past, private homes, stores, and purpose-built polling houses also helped meet this need. Today, the handful of polling houses that survive speak volumes about how local communities have long valued their right and duty to vote on Election Day.

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Nutter’s District Election House. Photo: Wicomico County Historical Society

On the Eastern Shore, the Nutter’s District Election House was built in 1938 as a simple one-room frame structure. Relocated in 1976 by the Wicomico County Historical Society to its current site in Fruitland, it now serves as a museum that houses the Society’s collection of presidential and inauguration memorabilia and political campaign items. In nearby Somerset County, Princess Anne’s Election House was moved to its current location in Manokin River Park in the 1980s. One of the state’s most decorative examples, this one-room structure boasts eave brackets, corner pilasters and (originally) a lath and plaster interior. It has the added distinction of serving its original purpose, as votes are cast here every two years for the Princess Anne town elections.

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Sang Run Election House. Photo: Al Feldstein

In the western part of the state, the unincorporated community of Sang Run in Garrett County is the site of the Sang Run Election House. Reputedly built in 1872, the one-room, board and batten sided structure served the voters of this once thriving lumber town.

Calvert County has, remarkably, retained four of its historic polling houses – the Sunderland Polling House (relocated to the White Hall property), the Old St. Leonard Polling House, the Sunderland Polling House in Huntingtown, and the St. Leonard Polling House. Utilitarian in nature, these one-room structures served the county from the late 19th through the mid-20th century. Most had two doors so that voters could move easily in one door, cast their vote, and exit out the other.

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St. Leonard’s Polling House. Photo: Kirsti Uunila

Calvert County Historic Preservation Planner Kirsti Uunila notes that these structures have an important story to tell as the center of civic life. “These polling houses weren’t segregated – Calvert County’s black and white residents cast their votes together here. Following school integration in the 1960s, the polling houses were abandoned and voting often took place in schools.” Oral histories document that these sites served as important centers of social as well as political activity, with oysters, crabcakes, and fried chicken being sold to hungry voters here on election day.

Although the way in which we cast our vote may have changed, our responsibility has not. As you make your way to the polls this Election Day, remember the story of these humble landmarks….and then go get a crabcake!

Preparing for Future Floods

By Nell Ziehl, Chief, Office of Planning, Education and Outreach

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Hoopers Island

As we turn from Ellicott City’s disaster response to recovery, and watch hurricanes threaten Florida and Hawaii, it’s hard not to think about all the places throughout Maryland that are prone to flooding. We built our earliest towns, cities, roads and rail lines along the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. As ports and fishing industries boomed, we developed more. And let’s be honest: we all love to live and play near water.

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Westernport, located on the Potomac

With support from the National Park Service and the Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Fund,the Maryland Historical Trust has hired Preservation Design Partnership, LLC to help us think about how to plan for and adapt historic buildings and districts threatened by flooding from tides, coastal surges, flash floods and sea level rise. Earlier this summer, we accompanied Dominique Hawkins and her team to riverine and coastal communities in western Maryland, Cecil County, Prince George’s County, Baltimore City, Anne Arundel County, and the Eastern Shore, to try to get a handle on what property owners and local governments face when preparing for floods.

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Mill No. 1 on the Jones Falls in Baltimore City

Before the end of the year, we hope to release a paper to help guide our agency, local governments and partner organizations as we consider how to maintain the integrity of our irreplaceable historic sites while preparing for increased flooding and precipitation. I’m sure we won’t have all the answers, but it will, we hope, be a starting point for a conversation that we look forward to continuing with all of you.

Documenting the Civil Rights Movement in Baltimore

By Eli Pousson, Director of Preservation and Outreach, Baltimore Heritage

Over the past year, Baltimore Heritage, the Maryland Historical Trust and the Baltimore National Heritage Area have been hard at work researching and documenting the history of Baltimore’s African American Civil Rights movement. Our long-term goal is to identify and designate historic places associated with the Civil Rights movement in and around Baltimore City. From the start, we recognized this project as a unique opportunity to get Baltimore residents interested and involved in the search for the city’s Civil Rights history.

In the spring, we put together a comprehensive bibliography with journal articles, books, government reports, and more—using Zotero to publish the bibliography online as a resource for local historians and educators. In the fall, we launched our project website featuring an interactive timeline of Civil Rights history and an inventory map showing all of the sites and buildings we have found so far. If you think we missed any important events or places, please get in touch or you can comment directly on the timeline or inventory as Google Spreadsheets.

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Rally to Save Baltimore’s Civil Rights Heritage, November 2015. Photo by Eli Pousson.

In addition to these online resources, we’ve organized several tours and programs for Baltimore residents and local students. In November we led a bike tour with stops at the segregated Pool No. 2 in Druid Hill Park, the home of activists Juanita Jackson and Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. on Druid Hill Avenue, and the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge on Eutaw Place where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in 1964. We also led a tour for a group of students from Digital Harbor High School with stops at the Ebenezer AME Church and Leadenhall Baptist—two of the oldest African American churches in Baltimore with long histories of fighting for justice.

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Juanita Jackson and Clarence Mitchell House on Druid Hill Avenue. Photo by Eli Pousson.

Our research has uncovered powerful stories from fight against residential housing segregation in the 1910s, the campaign desegregate downtown lunch counters in the 1950s, and activism around economic empowerment and urban renewal in the 1970s. But we know there are many more stories and places that we still need to learn more about. We look forward to continuing our research and working with community residents (and veteran activists) to make sure we preserve these important places from Maryland’s Civil Rights history.

If you are interested in learning more Baltimore’s Civil Rights Heritage: Looking for Landmarks from the Movement, please sign up for updates through the Baltimore Heritage website or get in touch with Eli Pousson, Director of Preservation and Outreach at pousson@baltimoreheritage.org.

The Common Good: Blacks in Secret Societies in Calvert County, Maryland

By Michael Gayhart Kent, Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture

Volumes have been written about the sacrifices and victories of the many men and women who have fought for civil rights.   While the focus is often on individual leaders and national events, many of our black ancestors worked quietly in the shadows to create a better future for their descendents. These unsung heroes, working together within the framework of benevolent, masonic, and fraternal societies, made lasting contributions to their local communities, setting the groundwork for – and engaging in – the struggle for civil rights.  This article examines the presence, impact, and succession of several such African American societies in Calvert County, Maryland, , which is also the subject of an exhibit opening at the Prince Frederick Library on February 6, 2016.

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The Baltimore Afro-American celebrated the Galilean Fishermen in an article on July 1, 1974, noting a current membership of 500.

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A Special Visit to Whitehall

A Special Visit to Whitehall

By Bernadette Pulley-Pruitt, Administrative Support, MHT Office of Preservation Planning and Museum Programs

Rideout Family cemetery at Whitehall

Ridout Family cemetery at Whitehall

Most people know Whitehall outside of Annapolis – if they know it at all – as a beautiful 18th century home and National Historic Landmark. For me, it has a special meaning and connection as the place where some of my ancestors were enslaved by the Ridout Family. When Michael Winn of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church organized a visit with Mr. Orlando Ridout IV and church members to the property’s cemeteries, I jumped at the chance to visit the graves of my family members .

Timothy Harris tombstone, Ridout Family cemetery

Timothy Harris tombstone, Ridout Family cemetery

Buried in the Ridout Family cemetery, my great-great-grandfather Timothy Harris was born into slavery in 1834 and died in 1905. After Emancipation, he continued to work for the Ridouts as a carriage driver and eventually purchased land near Whitehall. He and his wife Mary E. Bailey Harris donated a portion their land to build the now-demolished Skidmore School for African Americans. The epitaph on his tombstone reads “With the Upright Man, thou shalt show thyself upright.”

Amelia Martin tombstone, African American burial ground. Photo credit: Dalyn Huntley

Amelia Martin tombstone, African American burial ground. Photo credit: Dalyn Huntley

On the other side of the fence, adjacent to the Ridout Family cemetery, is an African American burial ground where many of Whitehall’s enslaved are interred. Only one permanent tombstone remains, belonging to Amelia Martin (1878-1899), the daughter of my great-great-grandmother Mary Calvert-Martin, who was also enslaved by the Ridouts. Over time, the name “Calvert” was changed to “Colbert”, and the “Col-Mar” and “Colbert” roads near the property refer to our family.

Portrait of Mary Calvert-Martin

Portrait of Mary Calvert-Martin

Today we do not know how many others are buried in the African American cemetery. Their markers, likely wooden, deteriorated over time or were removed by owners of the Whitehall property. I hope that one day we will be able to identify the graves of those buried there, perhaps with ground-penetrating radar, and erect a plaque in their honor, so that their lives will not be forgotten.

Of course, this is not a story unique to Whitehall, or to my family — these stories and these places exist all over Maryland. Many are threatened by time or neglect or ignorance of what is there. We must do what we can to save them and tell these stories, because we still have so much to learn about ourselves and our histories.

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The author with Mr. Orlando “Lanny” Ridout IV