Saturday, November 12, 2016

MD Hampton National Historic Site: An Earth-Quaker Outing

I didn't take a very long hike today as I had planned to meet a group of Quaker folks for a pre-planned visit to Hampton National Historic Site in Towson, Maryland. We had arranged for this tour of "the other side of the road" many months ago and it had been on my calendar since mid-summer. Our guide was cultural historian Angela Roberts-Burton, who in the past year has legally changed her name to honor her ancestry of Ghana and Ivory Coast. She introduced herself with the beautiful name, Naquali. As she said her name slowly again for a hard-of-hearing elder, a breeze blew through a tree nearby that seemed to whisper names long forgotten or never known on this old plantation, the largest in the state of Maryland during the 1800s, holding in bondage over 300 enslaved people at its height of iron and agricultural production.

Our group is very diverse. We call ourselves the "Earth-Quakers" and try to arrange a Meet Up every few months. We are all concerned for our environment, but because we have many older members we try to make sure to arrange outings that don't involve hikes that are too long or difficult. This seemed like a great place to gather after a contentious and often nasty election cycle not only to enjoy our time outdoors together, but to make sense of where we should each focus our attention on issues of environment, climate change, and conservation. Some came with heavy hearts, others with smiles on their faces hiding deep concerns, and others (like me) who were hoping to find some meaning in today's experience to help us make sense of what happens next.

Laborer, unnamed.
Naquali gave a beautiful tour. She did not enter into character, but spoke to us frankly and openly about the language of oppression. "I do not use the word slave," she said. "I prefer the word enslaved. The word slave objectifies the person, who like you and I right now, had fears, joys, hopes, and identities that were as complex as any of you standing in this circle." She explained her decision to legally change her name. "Although my birth name is beautiful and I love it, I did not know who, really, I am. Where did I come from? Who were my ancestors known by before capture and sale?" She pointed out that even with the precise record keeping of the plantation offices, enslaved blacks and whites were often not known by their original names. Names were given to them upon the slaver's auction blocks. And what about those enslaved who worked here before the African slave trade had even begun? "The British emptied their own orphanages, workhouses, debtor prisons, and jails. They poured their unwanted people into the colonies as free labor."  

Slave quarter cabin window reflects the stone tenant farmer house across the yard.

As we walked quietly down the lane to the slave quarter cabins I thought about the power of names and naming. The ugliness that has taken hold of our society is full of name-calling and threats against those different from and threatening to others. Some in our group had stories to share from the past few days. Naquali explained the role of oppression and oppressors in a modern context, comparing the use of the term slave owners to those holding bondage over others. How does this occur today? How do we recognize in respectful as well as in derogatory terms those who hold power over others?

Overseer's house with bell.
Overseer's Office door.

Our tour-turned-discussion lasted for over two hours. The sun was getting low when we finally said goodbye to a most excellent host who delivered such a brave and thought-provoking talk. I am so happy the National Park Service has her here but I am especially happy for her students who were also in attendance. She serves as an adjunct professor of African diaspora history at a local university and I really loved seeing their faces as she came down the lane dressed in period clothing to greet us. As we left the overseer's house, she rang the big bell to send us off. I walked uphill towards the mansion, once the largest home in Maryland, but I did not care to go in. Instead I wandered among the big trees

House servant nurse minding child.

Old trees have a calming nature about them. They've witnessed a lot, but they stay pretty quiet about it. Although there are no hiking trails at Hampton National Historical Site, I made a good mile just wandering from tree to tree. I wandered until I felt a little better about things then sat down to have a snack at a picnic table. I heard a familiar voice call my name - a friend from where I live up in PA. We chatted about things and about each of us was feeling. She voted differently than I did, but she understood the pain that many are feeling. She had hope, however, that things would change. I expressed my concern for things like climate change and the protection of wilderness and federal lands. We both agreed that our beloved National Park System needed much more support than they are getting. Staffing is at an all time low. Morale is low. Pay is low. "This makes the NPS vulnerable," she said, "And I agree we need to work to protect it and find the support they need." 

Basswood twin trunks connect at the middle leaving a view space.

Here we were agreeing on issues, having good conversation, and hoping for a better future for our shared environmental concerns. I looked up at the tree over our picnic table and saw that it was a joined basswood. Two huge strong trunks growing from the enormous ancient base, somehow connected in the middle creating a beautiful little space to see through. "That's us," I said to my friend, "You are one trunk and I am the other, and see how we two can see ahead through that space we make?"

A two-hundred year old springhead hasn't stopped flowing.

We walked back to the other side of the road, leaving the manicured grounds of the plantation house to re-enter the working landscape of the plantation farm. We carefully stepped down into the ice house where enslaved workers delivered ice cut from the ponds and rivers nearby to fill the cavernous cylindrical stone-lined pit beneath an earthen dome. We stopped to admire the stables where champion thoroughbreds were kept as well as the valuable carriage horses. Across the road the two hundred year old spring continues to empty water into the cooling channels of the spring house. 

Up from the underground ice house.

Stone-built stables of two centuries.

Double beech.

A tenant farmer's main room- what was rented - what was made (and owned?)

Tenant farmer's empty bed.
Our Earth-Quaker group had been pretty large so I didn't get a chance to peek inside the converted tenant house. It had been a former slave quarters, but after emancipation many of the quarters were transformed for share-cropper families - another form of oppression in its own right. Nothing was owned by the farmer, neither the equipment, horses, even the beds and chairs were rented to the occupants. What little was left after a harvest toll was taken barely afforded the furniture unless it was made (as some of it here was) by the craftsmen-farmer and his family. I spent a god deal of time just breathing in that space. The empty bed, again.

Yin-Yang Scyamore!

On the way to the car I saw a most incredible sycamore and I had to go visit her. My friend from up home went her own way but reminded me that a local bluegrass player, a local legend, was minding his store up our way for the last weekend before closing for the winter. Oh! I had to go visit before he closed - I have wanted to ask him about mandolin lessons for a long time but wasn't sure if he was taking winter students. I had to hurry. But the tree called me back. Look closer. Ah, yes, Earth-Quakers, a tree for the times. And whisper of a breeze blew through...

Two opposing forces containing the seed of the other.

P.S.  I made it to Gatchetville in time to see Carroll before the stored closed. Yes! I'm his winter student! Another story for another (winter) day!


We discussed reading this book over the winter. Naquali highly recommended it as the authors address both the pre-African slave trade in British laborers (mostly children) and the African slave trade that fueled American plantations. These are the historic landscapes that have shaped our ideas of resistance and rebellion, she said. We were standing in the middle of one of the largest.

 Image result for Rebel on the Plantation

Hampton National Historic Site is located just outside the Baltimore Beltway (I-695) on the Dulaney Valley Road exit.

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