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HAMPTON'S HIDDEN HISTORY; The story of slavery gets a short telling at the former Baltimore plantation, where the staff hopes to expand the tale with newly funded exhibits. Critics charge it's to little too late.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

From the slave quarters at the bottom of the hill a quarter of a mile away, the Hampton plantation house rises in serene, commanding splendor, the perfect symbol of the power and wealth and hauteur of the self-satisfied slave owner.

Much like stock market and high-tech tycoons who these days build sprawling trophy homes to announce their sudden riches, Capt. Charles Ridgely celebrated his fortune by erecting "one of the largest and most ornate country residences of its time in America."

In 1790, when the house was completed, Ridgely died one of the richest men in the new United States. He had amassed an estate of 24,000 acres in Baltimore County, extending north from what is now the Baltimore Beltway at Dulaney Valley Road.

Ridgely was the proprietor of a sprawling agricultural, commercial and industrial empire that included the flourishing iron works called Northampton Furnace. The Northampton works, now submerged in Loch Raven Reservoir, provided shot and cannon for the Revolutionary War.

And Ridgely was the master of hundreds of African-American slaves, transported British and Irish convicts and indentured servants who all provided the labor on which his vast enterprises were built.

His mansion, now the Hampton National Historic Site and staffed by the National Park Service, is crammed with the personal belongings of six generations of Ridgelys, including the captain and his heir, Charles Carnan Ridgely, a brigadier general in the Maryland Militia who was governor of the state from 1816 to 1819.

Now, in a new book, "Lies Across America," which carries the subtitle "what historic sites get wrong," iconoclastic author James W. Loewen sharply criticizes the way the story of enslaved African-Americans is told, or not told, at Hampton.

For Loewen, who won the American Book Award for his textbook-debunking "Lies My Teacher Told Me," Hampton exemplifies the shortcomings of historical presentation at many antebellum plantations. He says hardly any do "a decent job telling it.

"That is the story of the site and its people -- which means the story of slavery," he writes in the Maryland chapter devoted to Hampton, the longest in his book.

They tell you a lot about "silverware," he says dismissively, but little about the slaves who made the majestic life of the owners possible.

Hampton long had a reputation as a place where nice white ladies went to have tea. But the tearoom was closed this year, because it presented a fire hazard to the mansion.

No slaves' possessions

Certainly, fine silver, museum-quality paintings, extraordinary period furniture, including rare Baltimore painted chairs, china, rugs, linens, porcelains, musical instruments, crystal chandeliers, candelabra and sentimental statuary, all the accouterments of the owners, abound at Hampton.

But not a scrap remains of the possessions of the slaves who worked the plantation and the iron works. Not a trace remains, except the slave quarters at the bottom of the hill.

When he died in 1829, Governor Ridgely owned "as many as 338 slaves," according to the documents that settled his will.

"We don't believe we have one thing from enslaved African-Americans," says William Blair Curtis, chief Park Service ranger at Hampton. "We have nothing we believe belonged to a slave."

And the contrast between the one-room-and-a-loft slave cabin visitors see at Hampton and the grand, 33-room Georgian mansion at the crest of the hill could hardly be greater. The master bedroom alone is far bigger than the cabin.

Curtis, who grew up in Gettysburg, Pa., graduated as a history major from Gettysburg College and has been a licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg, doesn't disagree with Loewen's insistence on the need for greater emphasis on the history of slavery at Hampton.

He has, in fact, a sharp sense of the ironies in the contrast between life in the slave quarters and life in the Great House. But both he and Laurie Coughlan, the superintendent at Hampton, feel a bit sandbagged by Loewen.

"I would have been more comfortable had he interviewed someone at the park about his findings and incorporated the park's perspective on it," Coughlan says a bit stiffly. "What we intend to do and what he interprets -- I don't see them at all being the same thing."

Earlier this year, Hampton received a $200,000 Save America's Treasures grant, a $200,000 state grant and $200,000 in private funds raised by Historic Hampton Inc. to restore the farmhouse and slave quarters to better present the story of the slaves, indentured servants and craftspeople who built the mansion and worked the plantation.

The board of Historic Hampton, a self-governing fund-raising and friends of the park association, includes two African-Americans -- and a pair of Ridgelys.

Hampton is, in fact, putting together a "general management plan" that will "guide the development and interpretation of the park for the next 10 to 15 years."

Three alternative plans would expand the story of Hampton as a slave plantation. Public discussion was encouraged at two Towson churches in September and October. The September meeting evoked considerable "anger and concern" over the closing of the tearoom.

Loewen, of Washington, attended both meetings and left unimpressed. He especially decried the small number of African-Americans at the meetings. He's been equally unimpressed the four times he's toured Hampton.

"The word 'slave' is almost always avoided," he told an audience at the Canton Bibelot when he spoke there recently.

"The whole story of Hampton plantation is there to be told, and it isn't being told," he says.

He likes the way the tours at Somerset Place, at Creswell, N.C., begin "in the fields because the entire plantation rested on field [slaves]. Then they go to a reconstructed slave cabin."

Then they go to the big house.

At Hampton, he says, "They've got it upside-down. The tours start at the mansion and may or may not get out to the slave houses. At Hampton it's the story of the silverware. At Somerset it's the story of the people."

Conflict over tours

The Hampton staff defends its tours by saying that people come specifically to Hampton for the decorative arts, the silverware as it were; the architecture of one of America's finest period buildings; and the splendid landscape architecture of the formal gardens that have been integral to Hampton for two centuries.

But they agree the visitor should get an "overview."

"If you're on a mansion tour," Coughlan says, "It should not necessarily just be on the family who owned the mansion. It should also address how the mansion was built.

"This place was built in large part with slave labor," she says. "The terraces [in the formal garden] out back were dug by hand, by enslaved people. That should be incorporated in the tour. ...

"The lay of the land really speaks to the relationship [between slave and master]. The mansion is up here looking down on the farm and the slave quarters."

Slave quarters in their original location are rare in America. Two of the three slave houses at Hampton were built of stone. The third is made of thick, square-cut logs.

The stone houses were not built for the comfort of slaves, Coughlan says, but to provide a pretty view for the masters.

"They were creating a picturesque village down the park," she says. "Hampton is unique in having the farm, the slave quarters and the mansion all in the same relationship they would have had historically."

Most tours are of the mansion, Curtis says, although he opened the slave quarters last summer on weekday afternoons and on weekends. They attracted many visitors. They're open now only on weekends. Hampton's attendance drops off considerably in winter. About 35,000 people visit yearly.

About two-thirds of the tours are conducted by volunteers, local people, retired teachers, working people who come in on weekends.

"The vast majority talk about slavery," Curtis says. "How much depends on the tour guide. I know we've instructed, guided and coached staff and volunteers to incorporate all Hampton people."

But he notes: "The current interpretive staff is one permanent employee. I'm it."

On a tour he takes this visitor, he is more than sensitive to the story of slave life at Hampton.

"It's very hard to get specific details about slaves," he says. "To get specifically to the character or into the life of one of those people is nearly impossible, except for a birth date or a name or maybe how many shoes they were given in one year."

Freeing the slaves

Slaves were listed by name -- but often only by their given name -- in an inventory extracted from Governor Ridgely's will. So is their sex, age and "value." In the will, the governor "manumitted" -- freed -- all the slaves he legally could.

"The manumission by the governor is one of the largest ever held," Curtis says. "Significantly, while he apparently thought slavery should end, it shouldn't end until after he was dead and it was someone else's problem."

His son and heir, John Ridgely, would eventually buy more than 60 new slaves. John Ridgely was a very different "master" from his father. He is known to have personally freed only one slave.

"There is one family," says Curtis, "who came to us a few years ago whose, I think, great-grandfather was actually a son of John Ridgely and a slave woman and he was freed. As a teen-ager he was sent to school in Boston and then he came to Baltimore and lived there the rest of his life. His family is still around.

"A few years ago when they first approached us and gave us the information, they asked us not to say their name."

So the question of how the Ridgelys treated their slaves is quite complicated indeed.

Governor Ridgely was not always a benevolent slave master.

An account book for 1813 shows that on Feb. 27 he paid $1 for a "chain for a Negro boy," 25 cents for one iron collar and shuttle for the same and six cents for a large link "for ditto."

"So there is in fact an iron collar put on a Negro boy," Curtis says. "We have the bill for it. So there are a lot of stories to tell about that.

"Who is the boy? We have no idea. What did he do? We have no idea. What happened to him afterward? We have no idea.

"But also for the Ridgelys this iron collar is right in on the same list with the [payment] for a harness, a pair of shoes for the horse. This was just another livestock appurtenance, as far as the Ridgelys were concerned."

Perhaps inevitably, the Ridgelys were Confederate sympathizers during the Civil War -- the fourth plantation master, Charles Ridgely, narrowly escaped arrest as a pro-Southern Maryland militia commander.

And the last Ridgely lived at the mansion house in 1948. John Ridgely Jr., the sixth "master" of Hampton, and his wife, Jane Rodney Ridgely, sold the mansion and some furnishings to the National Park Service for about $90,000, paid by the Avalon Foundation.

They moved into the farmhouse at the bottom of the hill in the little cluster of buildings that includes the slave quarters. John Ridgely Jr. died in 1959. His wife lived on at the farmhouse until her death in 1979, when the last 14.2 acres that remained of the vast estates of Captain Ridgely was sold to the Park Service.

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