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Among the well-kept porches, red-brick homes, and charming gourmet spots of Easton, Maryland, researchers have found one of the oldest free African-American settlements in the country. The settlement known as The Hill thrived for over 70 years before slavery was abolished in Maryland in 1864 (and long after that, too). What’s fascinating is that evidence of The Hill only began to be discovered within the last decade. On a recent visit to Easton, just across the Chesapeake Bay from Annapolis, we toured The Hill even as research and restoration continue in this remarkable area.
Our tour began at the courthouse where, fittingly, a statue of Frederick Douglass graces the lawn. The famed abolitionist and social reformer was born into slavery only 12 miles away in the same county.
Dr. Dale Green, a professor at Morgan State University and our guide for the morning, explained that Douglass’ presence here has many layers of significance. The statue stands just a few yards from where the slave market was once held and in front of the jail where Douglass was once imprisoned. As a sign of how much things changed during Frederick Douglass’ lifetime, he also became the first African-American to speak in the courthouse and played an important role in the religious history of The Hill. This one statue says so much about what happened in the Easton area.
Our first step into the neighborhood that was The Hill came just a couple of minutes later when we crossed South Lane. Free people of color have lived in the area since the 1670s, which is mind-blowing when you consider the racial climate that existed in the United States then.
The area known as The Hill community was firmly established here by the 1780s. In fact, the first census in 1790 showed 410 free African-Americans living here and a handful owning property. And this was the slave-owning South. Remarkably, some of those families still live here. As Dr. Green explained, that makes The Hill the oldest, continuously-inhabited black community in the country. Some families have 16 generations of history in this spot.
For over 10 years, a multi-disciplinary team from Morgan State University, including Dr. Green, has worked with the University of Maryland College Park to paint a complete picture of the former community here. Their efforts have uncovered 30,000 artifacts that show what life was like in The Hill settlement. From a 1794 coin featuring Lady Liberty to army buttons from the 1800s and household items like pitchers and wine bottles, all these items tell about the lives of the free people who lived here.
How did free people of color end up here?
The Hill settlement likely formed in Easton for several reasons. Some residents were freed by local Quakers who decided slave-owning wasn’t compatible with their beliefs. Others were freed when a local sea captain emancipated them in his will. Still others bought their freedom and that of their family. Many of these acts came at a time when Maryland’s economy was shifting from cotton to grain, leading to less need for slaves and more emancipation. Whatever all the reasons may have been, it led to the foundation of an extraordinary place.
The Hill Tour
From South Lane, we wandered our way deeper into The Hill. We passed several homes (or former home sites) of notable residents like Grace Brooks, who is thought to be the first female landowner. Brooks was a midwife who bought her and her family’s freedom and was honored in an obituary when she died–unheard of for most women but certainly for women of color in 1810. We also saw a home built by a Civil War veteran in 1879, which was ultimately occupied by a Buffalo Soldier (the term for members of the first peacetime all-black Army regiments).
While many homes in The Hill have been occupied for generations, others like the Civil War and Buffalo Soldier Home have fallen into disrepair. Part of Dr. Green’s efforts and that of his colleagues have included working with government and civic organizations to secure funds to restore and renovate properties. The funds will help ensure that no more of the history of The Hill is lost.
The last two stops on our walking tour of The Hill were two of the most important – Bethel AME Church and Asbury United Methodist Church. Both were built in 1877 (although Bethel AME began in 1818) and represented opportunities for local African-Americans to have their own houses of worship, which also functioned as centers of the community.
The churches were key parts of The Hill as everything changed in the years following the Civil War and emancipation. They were also both dedicated by Frederick Douglass on the same day in 1878. Asbury UMC has recently been restored as it was during the Douglass era.
Although the tour of The Hill and what’s on display there are continuing to evolve, what’s most amazing about the area is the story of the people. That a community like this of free African-Americans could exist in the South before and during the Civil War says a lot about the courage and dedication of the people. That it thrived for so long and that descendants of those original settlers still live there says even more.
We were the guests of the Talbot County Office of Tourism. All opinions of the fascinating and historic are our own.