Outside the Box: Buried History
Unearthing a Forgotten Past on Maryland's Eastern Shore
Serendipity played a major role in the rediscovery of the oldest free African-American neighborhood in the United States. The Hill, a community in Easton, Maryland, is now believed to have been established prior to 1790, pre-dating the New Orleans neighborhood of Treme by more than 20 years.
The Hill’s history first came to light in 2010 when Dale Glenwood Green, a professor in the School of Architecture & Planning at Morgan State University in Baltimore, ventured across the Chesapeake Bay to study historically black churches. His focus was Easton’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Asbury United Methodist Church. (Frederick Douglass, who was born nearby, spoke at both in the 1870s.) A local resident mentioned The Hill to Green, and it sparked his curiosity.
Green and a group of interested preservationists, historians, researchers, genealogists, and archaeologists formed The Hill Community Project and began a series of excavations around the two churches. The work, which is funded in part by a grant from the National Trust, will conclude in 2018. Thousands of artifacts, including freedom papers, a Buffalo Soldier’s button, and a 1794 Lady Liberty coin, are being examined by the anthropology department at the University of Maryland at College Park.
Because the 18th-century brick courthouse in the center of Easton never burned or flooded, land ownership records are still intact. Members of The Hill Community Project have combed through these records and found that free persons of color purchased plots as early as the 1780s. They’ve learned, for example, that a formerly enslaved woman named Grace Brooks purchased land in 1792, making her the town’s first free, female, African-American landowner. Brooks emancipated herself, her children, and her grandchildren and brought them to live with her in Easton.
The findings have surprised lifelong Easton residents. “Most families had no idea that they were descended from free persons of color,” Green says. “The widespread belief was that they were descendants of slaves who weren’t freed until after Emancipation.”
The town evolved into a haven for free African-Americans for multiple reasons. Many of Easton’s Quakers became abolitionists by the late 18th century. And as the region’s dominant crop shifted to grain, which required less labor than tobacco, a significant number of the area’s enslaved workers were freed.
The Hill, which covers several blocks, remains part of a vibrant neighborhood. Visitors can follow a self-guided walking tour of the enclave, developed by Historic Easton. (Maps are available at the Talbot County Visitor Center in downtown Easton.) And The Hill Community Project is working with the tourism office on interpretive markers and an online exhibit.
“It’s so rare to have an intact neighborhood like this,” Green says. “It’s exciting that descendants of those early residents continue to live here today.”