As a kid, Delando Johnson steered clear of the brick mansion. High on a hill, it overlooked the field where he and his friends played football. He’d heard there were ghosts.
Now Johnson, 26, was one of around 100 guests at an event that invited Black Baltimoreans to get up close and personal with Mount Clare, an 18th-century plantation home in Carroll Park.
The recent celebration helped mark the creation of a commission that aims to bring this property into the 21st century. Researchers will study the enslaved laborers who lived and worked at the Southwest Baltimore plantation and a nearby ironworks — and perhaps locate their descendants in Baltimore. More than that, they want to transform the property into a place where present-day Black Baltimoreans like Johnson feel at home.
“Honestly, I love it,” Johnson said of the event, during which a performer poured libations to the memory of enslaved people who lived and worked on the grounds.
Mount Clare dates to 1756, making it one of Baltimore’s oldest buildings. But its significance — in fact, its existence — has been almost forgotten.
“Most people are unaware that there’s an intact plantation in the midst of the city,” said Dale Glenwood Green, founding co-chair of the Mount Clare at Carroll Park Commission. A professor of history and architecture at Morgan State University, his previous research centered on The Hill, a free African-American community on the Eastern Shore.
He compared the Mount Clare project to efforts at Montpelier, the historic home of President James Madison in Virginia, where curators have begun to include the descendants of slaves in the governance of the site. Both projects, he said, aim to “lift the veil of anonymity on those who have remained nameless and faceless.”
Currently, only white faces look down from the centuries-old portraits that hang in Mount Clare. On a wall in the parlor is one of the home’s former owners, Charles Carroll, Barrister, who helped draft Maryland’s Constitution. (He used the ‘Barrister’ to distinguish himself from other Charles Carrolls, distant cousins who were also prominent figures in Maryland.) Next to him is his wife, Margaret Tilghman, raised on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. After moving into the house, she spearheaded renovations, adding finer mantel pieces and a boudoir.
Inside, the mansion has the slightly spooky feeling of a home whose owners thought they were leaving just for a moment. Huge doors that once let in the breeze have long since been locked shut. Tea cups and cookies are set out upstairs. Christmas decorations hang in some rooms.
For over a century, the city-owned property has been stewarded by the National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of Maryland. Members of the invitation-only group trace their lineage to the elite of Colonial American society.
“Together, we’re collaborating to reinvigorate this whole place,” said Lucy Harvey, a member of the group who is related to Phineas Pemberton, an early settler of Pennsylvania and assistant to William Penn.
The Dames own the home’s collection of fine art and antiques, down to silver punch bowls and a gilded clock gifted by the Marquis de Lafayette on one of his post-Revolution tours of the United States. They decorate the place during the holidays and speak authoritatively about the building’s luxe décor and the lives of the Carrolls, who used it as their summer residence.
But, says Harvey, “We’re not telling the whole picture.”
By and large, the role of the enslaved, indentured and imprisoned laborers who made the Carrolls’ comfortable life possible has been written out of Mount Clare’s history.
For instance, in a 1914 reproduction of a painting of the house, a Black attendant was recast as white. The Dames, many of them older women, “have been criticized for a long time” for underplaying the role of slavery at the site, acknowledges Harvey. “Hard history is unpleasant.”
While doing research for her book, “Ancestors of a Worthy Life: Plantation Slavery and Black Heritage at Mount Clare,” archaeologist Teresa Moyer says she found plenty of references to enslaved workers in the writings of the Carroll family, facts conspicuously absent at modern-day Mount Clare.
The lives of enslaved people and white enslavers were intimately connected. Some of those who were enslaved slept in the same bedroom as their enslavers, helping them to the chamber pot in the middle of the night. Enslavers dictated how much food and clothing each enslaved family received, as detailed in Mount Clare’s archives.
While the Carrolls drank imported wines and sipped hot chocolate from delicate porcelain cups, enslaved people were expected to hunt, fish and grow much of their food. Ads that appeared in local newspapers describe the appearance, personalities and clothing of those who fled bondage from the plantation and ironworks.
The past few decades have seen a shift in how mainstream America thinks of plantations, from romanticizing them as relics of the “Gone With the Wind” era to reframing them as slave labor camps, whose beauty masks the violence of the system.
In South Carolina, for example, visitors to Charleston’s McLeod Plantation learn about the Gullah Geechee culture of enslaved workers who were responsible for creating the low country’s thriving rice industry. They brought farming expertise from West Africa, a fact that for years went unacknowledged by whites.
Similarly, at Mount Clare, enslaved workers at the Carrolls’ nearby ironworks would have used skills they brought from West Africa. Those who knew how to cultivate iron ore helped build the Carrolls’ immense wealth.
“They were already geniuses in their own right,” Green said.
Mount Clare’s new executive director, Krista Green, who is not related to Dale Glenwood Green, recently rejoined the organization and sits on the commission. She worked at Mount Clare 20 years ago, and remembers a co-worker’s squeamishness when she proposed a lecture series on industrial slavery.
Green says she wants to help African Americans understand and take pride in the accomplishments of enslaved ancestors, who persevered over immense suffering. As a young person of color, “You feel that you are somehow less than because you are descended from enslaved people,” she said. As an adult, she’s come to understand that, “Surely, that lessening is on the part of the enslaver.”
After they left Mount Clare, some formerly enslaved families resettled in other parts of Baltimore, said Moyer, using their skills at ironworking, horticulture and in other fields to find a living. Their descendants may have walked through the park without realizing their connection to the property.
The commission hopes to find them. The group’s governing body includes a genealogist who organizers hope will be able to locate descendants of people enslaved at Mount Clare, says Carol Gould, president of the Dames’ Maryland chapter.
Recently, the Dames have kept the property open by appointment only. This latest project comes in part thanks to an infusion of funding from the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership, which distributes a portion of the revenue the city gets from the nearby Horseshoe Casino. The group contributed $1 million to help pay for the commission’s first year.
The past year, which saw the killing of George Floyd and a national discourse on race, provided renewed incentive for the Dames to move forward, said Dale Glenwood Green.
The Dames’ decision to partner with the commission led by Black experts came from an understanding that, “It’s not our role as descendants of white Colonial people to tell the story [of enslaved laborers],” said Lindsay Thompson, part of the leadership of the Dames. A professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business, she spent months recruiting the commission’s members, who include historians and archaeologists.
On a lawn that once included a manicured bowling green, now with a sweeping view of Baltimore’s skyline, organizers set up a white tent on Aug. 28 to mark the commission’s inaugural event.
Lawrence T. Brown, author of “The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America,” recounted how Union General William T. Sherman set such estates on fire during the Civil War. “To me, the best kind of plantation there is, is one that’s burned to the ground,” he said. “The second best is a kind that educates.”
The mostly Black audience included first-time visitors to the mansion.
“I’ve been in this park 50 times, I never knew this site was up top,” said George Rich, whose father, grandfather and great grandfather were all Baltimore arabbers, who sell produce from horse-drawn wagons. He attended the event with his wagon and gave out fruit and bottles of water.
Standing barefoot in the grass, performer Tracie Jiggetts offered libations — handfuls of water from a gourd — while a speaker read the names of those who labored on the grounds. Jiggets said that with each drop of water, she felt a spiritual connection to those who walked before her.
Asked what she thought the long-deceased would have thought of the tribute, she responded: “I think they would be saying: ‘Finally.’”