"An Honest Reckoning"Historians in the News
tags: slavery, National Parks, public history
First came “the Colonel” — also known as Charles Ridgely — who in 1745 purchased a tract of land just north of Baltimore, where he and his two sons founded an ironworks. After his death, his son, Charles Ridgely (“the Captain”), used the profits from the family’s businesses to build a grand mansion, which now is the core of Hampton National Historic Site. The Captain’s nephew, Charles Carnan Ridgely — later the 15th governor of Maryland — inherited the opulent family estate. “The Governor” expanded the family’s holdings to 25,000 acres, which eventually encompassed an iron furnace and forges, marble quarries, farms, and orchards.
For decades, visitors to Hampton would hear stories of these and other members of the Ridgely family. They would learn how the family amassed a fortune forging iron and selling it to the Continental Army. They would marvel over the mansion, admiring its Georgian architecture and elaborately decorated rooms. They would troop outside to see the formal gardens, the icehouse that enabled the production of ice cream in summer, and the orangery that sheltered citrus trees from Mid-Atlantic winters.
Toward the end of the tour, guides might mention Nancy Davis, explaining that she was enslaved at Hampton and chose to remain there after being granted her freedom as a young woman. The guide would pass around a copy of a circa 1863 photo of Davis, clad in black and staring at the camera, a white child leaning into her side. Davis worked as a nursemaid, raising generations of Ridgely children while never having any of her own. When she died in 1908, she was buried in the Ridgely family cemetery, the only African American person known to rest there. The subtext of the oft-repeated story was clear: Though the Ridgelys did enslave a few people, they treated them as beloved members of the family.
But that simply wasn’t true. In reality, the Ridgelys held hundreds of people in bondage, and almost every aspect of their wealth was created through forced labor. Moreover, as newspapers from the 1800s show, many of the enslaved people at Hampton fled to escape cruelty and find freedom. One escapee became the subject of a short article in an 1829 abolitionist paper from Boston. His back was marked with 37 gashes, some 3 ½ inches long and a half-inch wide, the paper reported. A member of the Ridgely family who came to claim him said “he got no more than he deserved.”
The whitewashed interpretation at Hampton led historian James Loewen to excoriate the site in his 1999 book, “Lies Across America.” The place, Loewen wrote, focused more on silverware and draperies than the human beings who had been in bondage there. But Hampton has undergone a significant transformation since Loewen penned those words. Today, following years of research, the stories of the women, men and children enslaved at Hampton are emerging from historical documents, providing glimpses of lives long forgotten. And those lives have become part of the official story of Hampton, where they are now shared with visitors through exhibits, tours and educational programs.
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