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A tale of two infamous Maryland slave houses

Slavery haunts us. It lurks in the shadows of our conscience, emerging only for painful confrontations in a museum or occasional book. Otherwise, we exorcise it from our memories. Sometimes, we do both at once; witness what recently happened to two infamous slave houses in Maryland.

One was the home of Josiah Henson, a slave whose story was the basis for Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The book so ignited anti-slavery passion in the North that Abraham Lincoln greeted the author by saying, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war."

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Josiah Henson's home still stands in Rockville, a one-room building attached to a three-bedroom Colonial. The walls are made of split oak beams. A chimney in the back rises above the hearth where slaves prepared meals for their owner. Mr. Henson toiled and was beaten on this property. He described the cabin as "used for a kitchen, with its earth floor, its filth, and its numerous occupants."

Late last year, the owners, history buffs who had preserved the cabin, put the property on the market. It was about to be sold to private bidders when Heritage Montgomery, which promotes historic tourism in Montgomery County, raised money and bought the property last week for a permanent historic site for $1 million.

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The other slave house is also in Maryland, on the Chesapeake Bay in St. Michael's. It was purchased two years ago by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld as a weekend home. The house was recently in the news because Vice President Dick Cheney purchased a weekend home just a few minutes away by car.

Locally, Mr. Rumsfeld's home is known as "Mount Misery" because its first owner, Edward Covey, was a "Negro breaker" to whom other slave owners handed over rebellious slaves. The most famous slave he tried to break was Frederick Douglass, who later escaped to freedom. As a teenager, Mr. Douglass was so independent that his owner, Thomas Auld, first tried to beat and starve him into obedience. When that failed, Mr. Auld sent him to Mr. Covey.

As Mr. Douglass later wrote in his book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, "It was never too hot or too cold, it could never rain, blow, hail or snow too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night." If Mr. Covey spied a slave taking a break, the slave was whipped with thick tree branches.

After a few months, "Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul and spirit."

On a hot day in August 1833, Mr. Douglass collapsed in the field. Seeing him crawling along the yard, Mr. Covey kicked him savagely and beat him with a board. Mr. Douglass, covered with blood, escaped and went back to Mr. Auld to "ask for his protection." Mr. Auld sent him back to Mr. Covey.

In a stable, Mr. Covey started to beat Mr. Douglass.

"At that moment - from whence came the spirit I don't know - I resolved to fight. I seized Covey hard by the throat, and as I did so, I rose." The two men fought until Mr. Covey gave up. Mr. Covey lawfully could have killed Mr. Douglass for striking a white man but, not wanting to risk his reputation as a "Negro breaker," left him alone.

As Mr. Douglass later wrote, the fight "revived within me a sense of my manhood and inspired me with a determination to be free," a dream that Mr. Douglass realized four years later.

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But most slaves that passed through Mount Misery were not as fortunate. The house was undoubtedly the scene of the most vicious treatment of slaves imaginable, given that slave owners such as Mr. Auld did not hesitate to beat, whip and mutilate disobedient slaves. Mr. Covey had to use even more horrific methods of breaking the human spirit if he was to stay in business.

Unlike Josiah Henson's cabin, now preserved for remembrance, Mount Misery's memories have been banished. I certainly hope that a preservation group will buy Mount Misery if it comes up for sale again - or better yet, inspired by the Henson house, Mr. Rumsfeld will sell it to a historic preservation group.

I can't imagine a greater denial of our past than to have a defense secretary sitting in a lounge chair, savoring a drink and enjoying a sunset over the bay and then retiring for the night in a house of horrors built by a man whose occupation was ended only by our great national catastrophe, in which hundreds of thousands of American soldiers died.

The great spirit of Frederick Douglass and the ghosts of brutally tormented slaves, if not the dead soldiers of the Civil War, deserve a better remembrance.

Gregory J. Wallance, a New York lawyer, is the author of "Two Men Before the Storm: Arba Crane's Recollection of Dred Scott and the Supreme Court Case That Started the Civil War." His e-mail is gwallance@kayescholer.com.


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