‘Baltimore Beats’ is a blog about issues affecting the general historic infrastructure of the city and how approaches to managing it have trended along the lines of homegrown kitsch to haphazard to clueless.
For our inaugural Baltimore Beats blog we’ll start with a subject close to home, but with more of a national perspective.
As Carroll’s Hundred launched its new website about a year ago, the New York Times Magazine announced its initiative, The 1619 Project, at roughly the same time. There are some interesting parallels. Reading Jake Silverstein’s introduction, I thought the objectives of 1619 sounded similar to the ones Carroll’s Hundred has been pursuing for many years. Since then, the 1619 Project has come under some historical fire for referring to the first African people brought to the American colony as “slaves” rather than as the indentured servants that they were. These are important distinctions, but the hugely valuable contribution that 1619 offers is to make us aware of America’s cultural dependence on its African past (whether indentured or enslaved), by sharing this with a vast national audience. The important take-a-way is that forced African labor in the Americas also brought with it deep cultural, social, and economic issues that have been largely ignored and that are still with us today. Economic enslavement takes many forms. The Virginia race laws of the 17th century inflamed hatred among the races by essentially codifying racial inequity and injustice.
Indentured servitude was an early form of this. For the period of a laborer’s indenture, which was often seven years, that person was in effect a slave. He or she was “bound” to a master until the debt (figured in years) was paid off. In Virginia, where mortality was high in the 17th century, if an indentured servant died before his or her term of bondage was completed, their owner had expended only subsistence provisions, but no initial outlay for the servant. In contrast, purchasing a slave was expensive, so if a slave died, your investment in that person was lost. As Virginia Williamson writes in an article for Brookings, as mortality rates improved, slavery became the better option. (1)
Since that day in 1619, when twenty Africans from Angola were brought as bound labor to Jamestown, Virginia, America has always been an African American country. Carroll’s Hundred like The 1619 Project makes the point that there is not a business, cultural institution, or individual in this nation that would have thrived without the economic backbone of slavery/forced labor at our beginning. Whatever exceptionalism we claim today can only be thought of within the context of chattel slavery and the immense wealth it generated for this country and the standard of living most white Americans have come to expect today.
Our job, at Carroll’s Hundred has always been to investigate the evidence — evidence obtained through archaeological excavation, primary historical documents, and credible oral traditions — and to base our interpretation of the plantation site on this authentic data. The high point of these efforts came in two stages. The first in 1998, when Dennis Pogue and his team from Mount Vernon completed the excavation of the Carroll’s orangery building (a greenhouse). The second, when we assembled a panel of leading experts from around the region to develop an interpretive education plan for the site. Through a major grant from the Maryland Humanities Council, scholars from Morgan University, George Washington University, Loyola University, Johns Hopkins, Mount Vernon, and Williamsburg came together for several conferences to advise on a multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary approach to interpreting Carroll’s Hundred. Without the interference of state and city officials in 2015, Baltimore would now have one of the country’s most important on-site African American public education and research initiatives.
The scholarly controversy over 1619 has intensified, and only serves to put our work to preserve Carroll’s Hundred in greater perspective. Both projects are representative of the collective fear that surrounds the subject of American slavery, and who will control the narrative about it. This is why CH had put together a team — diverse in every respect — to painstakingly analyze how to understand and present the story of a 1770s plantation site in the Upper Chesapeake to an equally diverse public with sensitivity, authenticity, and respect. To have had the benefit of scholars such as Dennis Pogue, Ray Winbush, John Vlach, Glenn Phillips, Harvey Bakari, Chris Walsh, and Philip Morgan for this work was the honor of a lifetime.
(1) Williamson, Virginia. “When white supremacy came to Virginia.” Brookings / brookings.edu 15 August 2017.
Opinions presented on this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Carroll Park Foundation or its board of directors, or those of any of its partners, including The Otobo Project.