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.