City officials on Monday seized hundreds of artifacts recovered during archaeological digs in Carroll Park from a nonprofit that had been charged with caring for the pre-Civil War items but alarmed officials by moving boxes of them to a storage locker in Baltimore County without permission.
The city terminated the Carroll Park Foundation's 50-year license agreement decades early, effectively killing the group's plan to create an outdoor museum and tourist attraction that would have highlighted the lives of slaves who helped build Baltimore.
City officials said they lost confidence in the group's ability to care for the artifacts and to carry out the project.
"These artifacts are a vital component of Baltimore's rich legacy and unique position in the history of African-Americans," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. "I'm very troubled by the poor conditions these artifacts were kept in and even more disturbed by the lack of transparency in making them available for all of the public to enjoy. It was necessary that we act to preserve these artifacts before they were lost forever."
Baltimore County police and city workers took the artifacts from the storage facility in flatbed trucks. Among the 287 boxes was a religious crystal that historians believe was used by slaves centuries ago.
Officials took the artifacts to the city archives.
Pam Charshee, director of the Carroll Park Foundation, accused the city of overreacting, reclaiming the artifacts without a clear vision for what to do next, and leaving Carroll Park's history in limbo.
"It was a shock-and-awe operation. We believe they're making a very unfortunate mistake," said Charshee, a historian whose group has worked on the project since 1991. "They don't really know what we're doing."
She said she is worried the city will turn over control of Carroll Park's history to a group that will not care responsibly for the artifacts or the land. She said the city's decision to part ways with her group creates "grave threats to a protected cultural landscape in Carroll Park" and could jeopardize $235,000 in state and other funding she had solicited.
"We have been given a termination notice by the city for no real reason," Charshee said. "This is a project that could be a major economic development and revitalization in West Baltimore. We are trying to stay alive. We think this would be a tragedy for Baltimore's history."
In 1996, the Carroll Park Foundation received grants totaling $150,000 to begin work on a "living history park" to be named Carroll's Hundred and anchored by the Mount Clare mansion in Southwest Baltimore. The plans were to conduct archaeological excavations and to make improvements on the property, including building an 18th-century village to depict life in Colonial Maryland.
In an opinion piece in The Baltimore Sun in September, Charshee and David Carroll, the nonprofit's chairman, called the site a "crucible of early American cultural diversity."
"Once an iron plantation worked by enslaved laborers and indentured servants, the story of its diversity has national significance," they wrote. "Our educational programs have introduced over 500 schoolchildren to their cultural legacy at Carroll's Hundred through activities in the historic orchard."
Charshee and Carroll also said they have employed trainees in YouthWorks, the city's summer jobs program, to help conserve artifacts from the site and "save their African-American cultural inheritance."
But city officials say too little progress has been made in caring for Carroll Park's history.
"We were left with no other option," said Kevin Harris, a spokesman for the mayor. "She's had this collection in her private hands, won't share it and hasn't really demonstrated any fundraising commitment."
Tension between Charshee's group and the city arose in 2012, when she denied a researcher access to the archaeological collection that includes pieces of architecture, ceramics and bones.
Perhaps best known in the collection is a fist-sized chunk of clear quartz found in the 1980s in Carroll Park. It has been described as a relic of West African spiritual practices among Maryland slaves.
Charshee said she had concerns about making the artifacts available for inspection. "Someone wanted to come and rummage around in things and look at several hundred objects," she said.
But city officials said the researcher, Theresa Moyer, who was writing a book, deserved access to the city-owned artifacts.
Eventually, Charshee agreed to Moyer's request, but the incident raised concerns for the city. "They've never been stored properly to begin with," Harris said. "They should be somewhere accessible to the public."
Mount Clare was built in 1756 for Charles Carroll, the barrister who helped draft the Maryland Constitution (not to be confused with Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a Maryland signer of the Declaration of Independence). The mansion was the center of a 2,300-acre plantation that included a gristmill and an iron foundry. All that remains is the mansion and the 116-acre city park.
The mansion is now an independent museum managed by the National Society of Colonial Dames of the State of Maryland. The Colonial Dames and the Carroll Park Foundation also have clashed. In 2000, the Dames were accused of changing the locks at the mansion to keep Charshee out.
Breaking News Alerts Newsletter
As it happens
Get updates on the coronavirus pandemic and other news as it happens with our free breaking news email alerts.
"The bottom line is: The city felt Pam and her group wasn't managing it correctly," he said. "They didn't have an inventory of artifacts. She moved them into a storage area and didn't talk to the city about it. It's city property."
David Carroll called the city's decision a "lost opportunity" for history tourism. As promoters and "keepers of the vision and mission for the site," he said his group has been assembling a team to improve it.
"We need to tell the story of enslaved people and how they helped build the city," he said. "That's something we don't like to talk about. It's really disappointing that the city is really numb to the fact that this site holds tremendous tourism value."