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Grappling with its history, St. Mary’s College to dedicate rare memorial to enslaved people

When she took her place four years ago as the first Black president of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Tuajuanda Jordan, 60, had one goal in mind: to make the invisible, visible.

She wanted to change the narrative about her college from being “that small hidden gem nestled in Southern Maryland” to a standout institution in the state and in the nation.

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Seven years later, a unique structure has risen on the campus. It’s something few people have ever seen: a cabin that resembles slave quarters. The small building, crafted from wood and glass, was designed to commemorate the six individuals who were once held in bondage on the land that now belongs to the college.

All over the memorial, words are inscribed on the glass, lines of poetry created from the fragments of runaway slave ads: “Pay us in endeavor. Pay us in living remembrance.”

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On Saturday, dignitaries including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Baltimore’s mayor-elect Brandon Scott, an alumnus, will speak at the virtual unveiling of the monument. The dedication marks another step in the school’s journey to investigate and reconcile with its past, including a 2017 exhibit that gave insight into the relationship between the college and slavery.

The public honors college is in rural St. Mary’s County in Southern Maryland, a region where slaveholding was once common.

“We have thousands of monuments that remember those who held slaves in bondage, but we only have a handful for people who survived slavery,” said Jelani Cobb, essayist and New Yorker writer, who will be the keynote speaker.

Several other institutions of higher education have begun similar work to reckon with their pasts. Georgetown University has identified and provided scholarships for individuals whose ancestors were slaves there and later sold. The University of Virginia named a few of their buildings after enslaved workers and built a prominent memorial to them on its grounds. And Harvard University has investigated its history.

Scott, who graduated from St. Mary’s in 2006 and led the college’s Black Student Union, said he was proud his alma mater is a part of this conversation.

“As Black people across this country continue to face the repercussions and trauma of our enslaved ancestors, we must use this monument as not only a reminder of the past, but also of the work that is still ahead,” Scott said in a statement.

When Jordan arrived at St. Mary’s, she viewed it as a progressive institution, especially given it had been founded in 1840 as a female seminary. But in 2016, she faced a searing moment.

Jordan was sitting in her office when the school’s historians, archivist Kent Randall and archaeologist Julia King knocked on her door. They presented her with what they called an ‘exquisite gift’: shackles in pristine condition that had been donated to the college — and a white glove for Jordan to hold them with. She didn’t want to touch them.

Found in a barn just 25 miles north of the college, the shackles revealed the area’s troubling past, one Jordan was not ready to accept. Three months later, evidence of slavery was discovered even closer — on the grounds of their campus.

“It was heartbreaking,” said Jordan, who holds a doctorate in biochemistry.

At the time, the college was preparing to build an athletic stadium. As protocol, an archaeological dig needed to take place. King and her team of students dug up artifacts such as shattered glass, pieces of pottery, a clay tobacco pipe and part of a wine bottle seal. According to King, professor and chair of anthropology at St. Mary’s, the type of ceramics and a unique star insignia on them, possibly symbolizing freedom, helped make the connection to slaves.

King, Randall and students also examined the 1840 census, where they discovered that six slaves belonged to the seminary. Researchers also found a document about a property made of logs, brick and wood, with a chimney.

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Jordan said it took her time to grapple with it. Then she moved forward with a plan to engage students and the greater community. The decision was made to construct the athletic building elsewhere. The team wanted to resurrect the structure, a sort of “ghost cabin,” to remember what once stood.

“It is our job to make the connection and tell the whole truth,” Jordan said. “Racism is a system and we need to figure out how we can get people to open their eyes to true history.”

Dr. Tuajuanda C. Jordan, president of St. Mary's College of Maryland, stands near The Commemorative to Enslaved Peoples of Southern Maryland memorial that was built after the remains of slave quarters were discovered in the summer 2016.
Dr. Tuajuanda C. Jordan, president of St. Mary's College of Maryland, stands near The Commemorative to Enslaved Peoples of Southern Maryland memorial that was built after the remains of slave quarters were discovered in the summer 2016. (St. Mary's College of Maryland)

The designers, Shane Allbritton and Norman Lee from the architecture practice Re:site in Houston, wanted the monument to create a different experience for visitors between night and day.

“At night, the viewer sees that the light shines through those barriers of bondage,” Lee said. “And during the day the glass shows a reflection of the viewer, they see themselves and how they fit into history.”

“This is just one story,” Allbritton added. “Our work is to make history visible, but this is just a drop in the ocean.”

Tatyana Turner is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers Black life and culture.

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