George Batty led a difficult, dangerous life. In 1829, the then-54-year-old was one of the oldest enslaved men working in a forge north of Towson on the largest plantation in Maryland.
“It was hot, dangerous work,” said Bill Curtis, a ranger with the National Park Service, which operates the former plantation as Hampton National Historic Site. “If some of the burning coal fell on your shoe, you were toast. Of all the work that the Ridgelys extracted from enslaved people, this was probably the most hazardous.”
Batty is among the enslaved people beginning to emerge from the shadows as the result of a massive two-year research project undertaken by the University of Maryland, Towson University, the University of Maryland Baltimore County, the National Park Service and the Nanny Jack & Co. archives. The 11-member Hampton Ethnographic Team combed through census directories, estate lists, land records, city directories, clothing records and other sources to illuminate the lives of perhaps 800 enslaved men, women and children who spanned seven generations.
The research is continuing, but the team will present what it has learned so far Friday at an afternoon symposium. On Saturday afternoon, living history interpreters in period attire will present guided tours throughout the now-62-acre estate.
Although Maryland was a slave state and had numerous plantations, “there is almost no cohesive narrative around slavery,” said Cheryl Janifer LaRoche, an associate research professor at the University of Maryland and the project’s principal investigator.
Before beginning the project, “we had individual names and small clues about a few people,” she said. “But what we have been able to do is not only find out about individuals but reconstitute family histories and trace them beyond the plantation into the 21st century. It’s been so gratifying to animate these lists and turn the names on them into human beings. We know them now like they are our friends.
“We can finally start to talk about them,” she said, “as real people.”
The ethnographic team has reconstructed six enslaved families and has traced roughly 100 of their progeny through the generations. Three families — the Beattys, the Cummingses and the Harrises — continue into the 21st century because their ancestors survived and even thrived despite formidable odds.
Henry Cummins, for instance, endured a childhood of extreme deprivation. (Names were often spelled inconsistently.)
“He started out life as a small boy who was enslaved by the Ridgelys,” said Gregory Weidman, curator of the Hampton National Historic Site.
Henry’s mother was forced to work in the home of Ridgely heirs living on a part of the plantation in White Marsh. When she was freed in 1829, she had to leave her 2-year-old son behind, and he spent the next 26 years in servitude. Yet later in life Henry Cummins became a famous chef at the fanciest hotel in Baltimore and was known for his terrapin soup.
In contrast, Nathan Harris occupied a relatively prestigious role for an enslaved man in 19th century Maryland. A coachman famed for his ability to manage a four-in-hand — four horses pulling a carriage — Harris wore an elegant livery with special buttons, each shaped like a stag’s head.
After Maryland abolished slavery in 1864 the newly freed Harris started his own livery stable on Woodbourne Avenue. The enterprise was profitable enough that he could afford to take out newspaper advertisements offering stallions for sale.
Though these men and women have been dead for well over a century, their impact continues to be felt today.
Researchers have traced George Batty’s descendants to include Will Beatty, a native of York, Pa., and a football player with two Super Bowl rings. (He could not be reached for comment.) The ethnographic team determined that Henry Cummins passed his lineage onto Harry S. Cummings, who in 1890 became the first African-American elected to Baltimore’s City Council. And Nathan Harris’ descendants seem to have taken root in Towson and can be found in families named Davis, Harris and Gross. (The Baltimore Sun was unable to contact these families; researchers declined to provide the descendants’ names because they have not yet established communication with these relatives.)
The project is an example of a nationwide trend at cultural institutions of all sizes — from Mount Vernon and Monticello to Baltimore’s Hackerman House at the Walters Art Museum — to tell a more complete history by resurrecting the lives of the enslaved people who built and maintained these palatial estates.
But LaRoche said that what set the project at Hampton apart from the beginning was the sheer magnitude of the estate, which was owned by the Ridgely family from 1745 to 1948. (The home's second and most famous owner was Charles Carnan Ridgely, the 15th governor of Maryland.)
At its peak, the plantation comprised nearly 25,000 acres, stretching from an area north of Towson to Perry Hall and White Marsh. It included a dairy, orchards, barns, stables, gristmills, marble quarries and an ironworks. When construction on Hampton Mansion was completed in 1790, it was the largest private home in the U.S. and was kept clean and in good repair by the tireless efforts of a dozen house slaves.
“The way we tell history in the United States, slavery is never given credit for the economic viability this country enjoys today,” LaRoche said.
“We make it sound like these estates and enterprises came about because of the brilliance and great political savvy of a few great men. We don’t acknowledge that all of this profit and largesse was based on the backs of human beings who were enslaved for 100 years. This is an opportunity for us to begin a more honest, truthful and realistic conversation about slavery. If we are brave enough, it could begin to heal this country.”
LaRoche said that it’s sometimes painful for 21st-century African-Americans to learn definitively that their ancestors had lived in captivity.
“It can take a minute for people to process this information if they haven’t thought of themselves as being associated with slavery,” she said. “Maryland doesn’t always pop right up in your mind when you think about slave states, so making that discovery can be a shock to the system.”
But for Myra DeShields-Moulton, it was a relief to definitively trace her lineage to the Hampton plantation. The 58-year-old genealogist always had a hunch that the people she attended school with in York, Pa. — the people whose kitchens she ate in and whose children she later watched grow up — were more than just neighbors and friends. They were cousins. DNA tests taken four years ago confirmed that George Batty was her great-great-great-great grandfather.
It wasn’t until LaRoche traced their common ancestry to the Hampton Plantation that DeShields-Moulton had the evidence she needed to confirm where their family line began.*
“I’ve been telling the people I grew up with for years and years and years that we’re all related, but nobody believed me," she said. “I knew I was a Beatty, but now I have the proof. It’s nice to know that we’re all biologically connected and part of the same family.”
*Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect the circumstances under which Myra DeShields-Moulton learned she was descended from George Batty.