A Maryland Attic Hid a Priceless Trove of Black History. Historians and Activists Saved it from AuctionHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, primary sources
The 200-year-old document was torn and wrinkled. It had stains here and there. And it was sitting on a plastic table in the storeroom of an auction house near the Chester River hamlet of Crumpton, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Historian Adam Goodheart had seen it before, but only in a blurry website photo. Now, here it was in a simple framed box — a wanted poster for “A Negro Man named Amos” who had fled from his enslaver in Queen Anne’s County.
It was chilling. There, on cheap rag paper, was the story of American slavery. Amos was “a smart fellow,” about 20, who might be headed for his mother in Philadelphia. But in 1793 he was the property of one William Price, who wanted him caught.
The poster, or “broadside,” was one of hundreds of rare documents discovered earlier this year in the attic of an old house on the Eastern Shore and saved from the auction block by a group of Washington College historians and local Black activists.
And the reward poster turned out to be one of the oldest known, said Goodheart, director of the college’s Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience in Chestertown, Md., where the documents are now housed.
“These broadsides weren’t designed to be saved,” Goodheart said. “They were designed to be tacked up on the wall or passed out from hand to hand … and the vast majority of those were simply discarded or disappeared over the years.”
“When I really realized what it was and that it was genuine, and how [old] it was,” he said, “there really was kind of a … moment of, ‘Wow, I’m holding something really priceless in my hands.’”
“There really aren’t any documents like this known to exist from before 1791,” he said. “And ours is one of just a tiny handful anywhere that exists from the 1700s, perhaps fewer than 10.”
“The first time I picked it up, it felt incredibly chilling,” he said.
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