Maryland Archaeologists Unearth Jesuit Plantation’s 18th-Century Slave Quarters

Researchers are working with the descendants of enslaved people seeking to document their family histories

Archaeologists found the remains of cabins, broken clay tobacco pipes, ceramic cups and other artifacts. Maryland State Highway Administration

Archaeologists conducting excavations at a Jesuit plantation in Maryland have unearthed roughly 300-year-old buildings that housed enslaved workers, reports McKenna Oxenden for the Baltimore Sun.

A team from the Maryland Department Transportation State Highway Administration and St. Mary’s College used metal detectors to identify the remains of cabins, broken clay tobacco pipes, ceramic cups and other traces of lives lived on the plantation. The artifacts were buried in farm fields in Leonardtown’s Newtowne Neck State Park, which is home to an 18th-century brick manor once occupied by Jesuit missionaries.

Per a statement, local Reverend Dante Eubanks is one of the many modern descendants of African American individuals enslaved at Newtown Manor.

“To be able to stand in the exact place where my ancestors lived and endured is a powerful experience,” he says. “We need to remember these stories, they are important to our history and healing.”

In 1838, Jesuit priests in the Washington, D.C. area sold more than 272 enslaved people—including those living at the Newtown estate—for the equivalent of about $3.3 million in today’s dollars. Part of the money went toward paying the debts of Georgetown University, then known as Georgetown College. Some enslaved individuals pleaded for rosaries so that they could pray as they were rounded up and loaded onto ships bound for plantations in Louisiana, according to Rachel L. Swarns of the New York Times.

Five years ago, administrators at the D.C. university announced plans to rename residence halls that honored former Georgetown presidents Thomas Mulledy, who authorized the 1838 sale, and William McSherry, who acted as Mulledy’s lawyer during the sale. The news arrived one day after student activists staged a sit-in, as Toby Hung and Ashwin Puri reported for the Hoya at the time, and followed recommendations made by a working group established to study how Georgetown could acknowledge its history and make amends for the past.

Newtowne Manor
Archaeologists uncovered the slave quarters near a manor that housed Jesuit missionaries. Preservation Maryland

“Whether people know that history or whether people think that history is important, that changes from generation to generation,” David Collins, a historian at Georgetown, told WAMU’s Michael Pope following the university’s announcement. “So the Georgetown community is becoming aware again and in a new and deeper way of a history that’s been known for several generations already.”

Since 2015, historians and relatives of the enslaved people who were sold in 1838 have collaborated through organizations including the GU272 Memory Project, the GU272 Descendants Association and the Georgetown Memory Project. So far, they have located more than 10,000 descendants of those sold by the Jesuits. (Family members including Eubanks partnered with the archaeological team to carry out the research at Newtown.)

Though the term “GU272” has become well known based on earlier findings of 272 people listed as part of the sale, the GU272 Memory Project notes that the Jesuit sell-off of enslaved people actually included 314 people sold between 1838 and 1843. Researchers have identified more than 40 enslaved people from Newtown who were sold at that time, including at least 16 children and teenagers.

The current field work at the manor is set to continue through Friday, weather permitting. Archaeologists will analyze their discoveries to provide a deeper look at the daily lives of the enslaved people who were born, lived and died at the plantation.

“The Jesuits were prolific in their record keeping, but very little survived on the enslaved African Americans who worked the fields and served the Catholic Church,” says Julie Schablitsky, the highway administration’s chief archaeologist, in the statement. “If there was ever a place in Maryland that holds the story of diverse cultures converging to find religious freedom in an environment of conflict, sacrifice and survival, it is here.”

Last month, archaeologists with the State Highway Administration excavated a 180-year-old cabin in Hagerstown that was once part of a black community where enslaved and free people lived. The area was heavily involved in Underground Railroad activity. And two years ago, researchers found a cabin that housed enslaved people on the property of the oldest home in Cambridge. To share the information with visitors, highway officials are incorporating all the new findings about black history into interpretive signs and materials

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