“This Gave Me Great Influence Over Them”

Wee Frederick Douglass, Source: Kate Beaton

Wee Frederick Douglass, Source: Kate Beaton

The following is a modified version of the talk that I co-wrote with Benjamin Skolnik and presented at the Society for Historical Archaeology conference earlier this month:

As historical archaeologists, we frequently claim that our work “gives voice to the voiceless.” However, our work of “giving voice” runs into the issue that the most famous voice from our site at Wye House comes from Frederick Douglass, who shares his experiences of being enslaved there as a boy. While we write our dissertations, we attempt to articulate our relationships with Douglass as a historical figure, an author, a literary character, in popular culture, and as a guide for our archaeological work. We ask, ‘How can archaeologists use the experiences of historical figures who spoke for themselves to better tell the stories of those who could not?’

The Lloyd family and their direct descendants have owned the Wye House plantation for 11 generations. One of early Maryland’s most prominent families, the Lloyds left researchers a wealth of information that spans almost all of Maryland’s history. This site consists of many, well-documented standing structures, most relating to the 18th-19th century white owning family. It is a National Historic Landmark and has a rich and thorough collection of primary documents. The Maryland State Archives have 77 boxes of digitized reels, papers, documents, and materials donated from the Lloyd Family. Since the 1960s, the discipline of historical archaeology has turned research from solely these documents and buildings to excavate in and around the homes and workspaces of the enslaved people. Archaeology in Annapolis’s excavations at Wye have been no different as we began excavating an area described by Douglass as the Long Green in 2005.

As a witness, Douglass provides several important functions for us. His writings describe an area of the plantation generally neglected by the Lloyds’ records, visitors to the plantation, and other researchers prior to Archaeology in Annapolis. He defines the boundaries of the Long Green, a term that, to the best of our knowledge, we use because of him. He describes several buildings on the Long Green. Many are gone now and many the enslaved population on the plantation occupied. We also turn to Douglass to help us answer questions concerning material culture at Wye House. As we pulled up oyster shells from around domestic areas, we thought of Douglass writing about the people he saw using oyster shells as spoons. When we interpreted a buried cache in the doorway of a slave quarter that opens immediately onto the Lloyd family cemetery, we recalled the description that Douglass gives of the cemetery. He writes “Strange sights had been seen there by some of the older slaves. Shrouded ghosts, riding on great black horses, had been seen to enter.” This allowed us to understand the absolute necessity for the cache or spirit bundle to separate the spaces of the living and the dead.

One important fact to remember is that Douglass is writing at the ages of 27, 37, and 63 from his memories as a young boy, aged around 4-6. He is also writing his autobiographies for the purpose of abolition and for a general audience. The way he structures the telling of his life and experiences is toward the end of dismantling the system of slavery. Not that what Douglass writes is untrue or intentionally skewed. He gives us the real names of people and places so, as it says in one introduction, “His statements, therefore, may easily be disproved, if they are untrue.” However, everything Douglass writes should be viewed in this context and understood from his perspective.

Frederick Douglass, 1879. Source: National Archives

Frederick Douglass, 1879. Source: National Archives

Frederick Douglass, as a cultural figure, exists within a discourse outside of our archaeological project. We read excerpts of his autobiographies in school, our teachers using his voice to talk about slavery and escape. Numerous actors in movies and on stage have portrayed him, taking on the fictional, larger-than-life persona that many historical figures do. He easily becomes a symbol and a message rather than a flesh-and-blood man. Statues of his likeness have been erected in Easton, DC, Baltimore, and New York. His name and his words have power, to inspire and to teach, but also to mask inequality.

His statue in Easton is located outside the courthouse where Douglass was at one time imprisoned. On the other side of that courtyard stands a memorial to the Talbot County boys, a local Confederate regiment. While some would look at Douglass’ presence there as a sign of a newly restored balance, instead, we can see it as a sign of perpetual struggle. We shouldn’t take the popularity of his message, voice, image, or name to mean that the racial issues we face as a country are not still prevalent and dangerous.

Given the specific uses we have for Douglass in our work, the two of us have approached him in personal ways. As researchers, we believe it is important to understand the ways we approach the person that is Frederick Douglass, whatever version that may be. So, what do two white archaeologists do with Frederick Douglass?

Ben grew up in Maryland. As a student, he knew Douglass was from his state; however, he made little else of this connection. He lived in a suburb of Baltimore and to him, the Eastern Shore was just a place you had to drive through to get to the beach. Nothing was made of Douglass’ time enslaved in Baltimore. Most discussions of Douglass were relegated to Black History month, where he was joined by other Marylanders such as Harriot Tubman and Benjamin Banneker. Now, Ben has had to rediscover Douglass for himself as an adult. First, Douglass is an eyewitness to the buildings and sites and landscapes we have spent the past five years thinking about and excavating. Second, Douglass is a social theorist who has spent much time and energy discussing slavery, emancipation, and freedom. In many respects, Douglass’ writings read like the works of post-modern and post-colonial social theorists writing more than a century later.

It was his experiences as a child at this site that allowed him to speak with such authority and force on these subjects. In this light, Ben sees Douglass as a witness, as a guide, and as a teacher. On one hand, he wants to use Douglass and his writings much as Biblical archaeologists use their historical sources: a gospel of Douglass to answer the questions “where?” and “when?” On the other hand, he also wants to become a student of Douglass. He wants to learn what Douglass has to say about humanity and the human experience, race and racism, and overcoming the inequalities we perpetuate for ourselves and others.

For me, growing up in Michigan, Douglass was a distant figure. I knew what he was—an author, an abolitionist, a suffragist, the abstract titles of a historical persona—but not who he was. His autobiographies, deeply self-reflexive that they are, helped me understand this. Working at Wye House, his voice gave me a perspective I needed to try to understand what this place was for a majority of its population and how Douglass saw himself in it. We have records of the names of over 500 men, women, and children enslaved at Wye House between 1770 and 1834. They were the people that Douglass lived with and wrote about. For me, voice and life are breathed into these names in two ways. One is how the descendants in Talbot County have taken these names and memorialized them, laying their spirits to rest. The second is by reading Frederick Douglass and his accounts of his contemporaries at Wye House.

Frederick Douglass statue, Easton, Maryland. Source: Benjamin Skolnik

Frederick Douglass statue, Easton, Maryland. Source: Benjamin Skolnik

Like Ben, I think of Douglass as a guide, not because he speaks with an objective truth, but because he speaks from such a necessary perspective. One of my favorite days, every year as an instructor for the summer field school at Wye House, was the day after we assign the students to read Frederick Douglass. The change in the way they moved through the landscape, looked at it, recalled it, and talked about it, were all immediately changed. As a guide, Douglass leads us all down the paths he walked. We can never share the same perspective as him, but we can incorporate it into our understanding.

In the past five years, I think every paper Ben wrote, every presentation he gave, followed the title format of “Semi-relevant Frederick Douglass quote:” What the Paper is Really About. This paper had to be the same. The quote in the title, “This gave me great influence over them” comes from My Bondage and My Freedom. When describing a small group of enslaved people plotting their escape to freedom he writes, “I had, however, the advantage of them all, in experience, and in a knowledge of letters. This gave me great influence over them…If any one is to blame for disturbing the quiet of the slaves and slave-masters…I am the man. I claim to be the instigator of the high crime.” We acknowledge that Douglass holds great influence over us in the present. His experiences as a slave in Talbot County and his writings on slavery and freedom shape the way we see the mid-19th century and what we’re doing as archaeologists. As we look at the topography of race in the 21st century and excavate at this plantation we ask, how can we disturb the quiet of this “post-racial” world in which many people think we live? Douglass worked tirelessly to abolish racial slavery in the United States. He saw that goal fulfilled during his lifetime, but racial equality is still not a reality. We want to be students of archaeology, history, and Douglass. We want to learn what he can teach us. We don’t want to speak for him; how could we ever hope to? But we do add our voices to his. We invoke Douglass as an instigator, to remind us that his mission isn’t finished.


Leave a Reply