You never know what you may unearth. And archaeology students are looking for what is believed to be the nation’s earliest free black community. All summer long the students have been conducting a dig at a small patch of ground on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, seeking evidence that the area was home to the nation’s first free African-American community, reports The Baltimore Sun.
It is thought that hundreds of free blacks once lived in the area, known as The Hill, all the while plantations were just miles away with hundreds of black slaves.
University of Maryland, College Park, and Morgan State University students have been digging behind what is now the Women’s Club of Talbot County, a building, part of which dates to at least 1793, that was home to three free non-white residents, according to the 1800 Census.
“We also know that by around 1790 there were a few free African Americans who were actually purchasing property in this neighborhood,” Stefan Woehlke, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland who has been working at the site, told the AP. “And so we’re excavating here, one, to figure out what their lives were like and also to better understand the community more broadly in order to help support the claim that this is the oldest free African-American community in the United States.”
One of the things the students have been searching for is more evidence that one of the black residents may have worked as a blacksmith on the property. They have already dug up raw materials for making nails, something blacksmiths would have made use of. This is also prove the the community was self-sufficient, with businesses and services for its residents.
It is believed the community likely cropped up after Methodists and Quakers, who lived in the area, freed slaves in the 18th century.
“Dale Green, a professor of architectural history and preservation who has studied Talbot County records and Census data, estimates that 410 free black residents lived in the neighborhood by 1790,” writes the AP.
Maryland’s Eastern Shore is actually steeped in African-American history. Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 in Talbot County, and fellow abolitionist Harriet Tubman was born in nearby Dorchester County.
If the dig does find evidence of the rumored free black community it will be older than the one currently recognized the earliest free black community–the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans, which dates back to 1812. University of Maryland archeologists and researchers at Morgan State estimate that the Easton neighborhood known as The Hill may predate Treme by at least two decades.