Embracing a Complicated Past while Educating Future Generations

       Historic Sotterley Plantation, along the Patuxent River in Southern Maryland is the 94-acre site of bountiful colonial revival gardens, music and wine festivals, picturesque weddings, an organic farm, special events and of course, tours of the historic 18th-cen­tury manor house and grounds.

      Back in its heyday, though, Sotterley was a tobacco plantation of 7,000 acres — worked by a labor force of nearly 100 enslaved people. Over the centuries, it was — like many plantations along the East Coast — building the wealth of a nation on the backs of Africans.

      “We have documented evidence that connects our first owner of what later became Sotterley, Squire James Bowles, to the trans-Atlantic slave trade,” says Sotterley’s education director Jeanne Pirtle. “We know that in 1720, a ship named the Generous Jenny, part of the Royal African Company, arrived here carrying slaves destined for the colonies.”

       Sotterley was just one landing site where after weeks at sea human cargo was unloaded. Snatched from their homes in Benin, Angola, Ghana, Nigeria and beyond, these were people destined to live their lives enslaved in a foreign world. Many, however, never reached the shores of this continent, dying along the route, which has come to be known as the Middle Passage.

       Sotterley’s staff traced the route of the Generous Jenny from England to the west coast of Africa, near present-day Ghana, then across the Atlantic to the United States. This trade pattern connected the economies of three continents, exchanging goods for human cargo.

       Despite ship captains’ desire to keep alive as many sellable slaves as possible, Middle Passage mortality rates were high. It is now believed that between 10 and 20 percent of transported people lost their lives en route to the new world. 

       “It’s important that we acknowledge the African people who endured such a horrific voyage and those whose bones now litter the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean,” says Ann Cobb, Maryland representative of the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project.

      The Middle Passage Project honors those two million captive Africans who perished during the crossing and the 10 million who survived to build the Americas.

       As one of the 31 Middle Passage sites in the U.S., Historic Sotterley has earned an international distinction from the UNESCO Slave Route Project. In Maryland, Sotterley is one of five documented Middle Passage sites and the first to have a marker. 

Speaking of Slavery

       Sotterley’s distinction means it must live up to the Project’s challenge. In Cobb’s words, this is talking “about these enslaved people as survivors and people who endured the denial of their humanity, of their human rights.”

       Sotterley, and other historic sites like it, have had to come to terms with what it means to preserve and interpret the complete history of a place that was home to both white owners and black slaves. Recognizing the legacy of slavery means honoring black lives as well as white.

        “We must recognize how slavery affected the founding of America and how the legacy of the institution still affects us,” Pirtle says. “We had several presidents who were slave-owners. It was part of our system then, and that legacy is in what we see today. We can trace many of our modern issues back to this history.”

       Visitors to Sotterley see both the heights of wealth and the depths of poverty in this one location. Tours walk through not only the elegant home but also a slave cabin from the 1830s, which sits just beyond the main house. 

       “We seek to show the unvarnished truth of this place,” Pirtle explains. “So when you take a house tour, you are going to hear about slavery and the enslaved along with those who lived in the house. You are going to hear people’s stories intertwined. It’s not a slavery tour or an owners’ tour. It’s all one story. If you leave here without being exposed to that story, we did something wrong.”

      Inside the slave cabin is an exhibit based on the lives of the Kane family, who were enslaved there in the 19th century. Descendent and prominent genealogist Agnes Kane Callum, whose grandfather was born a slave at Sotterley in 1860, worked to uncover her family’s past, based on oral traditions and research, to better explain how they lived.

        Callum’s research has helped many people trace ancestors who had been held in slavery in the region. The cabin is dedicated to her.

      “When you walk in the cabin, you are seeing how they lived, existed, how they passed along their culture and their ingenuity,” Pirtle says.

      “It makes you examine yourself. I think that’s the hardest thing. We have to confront some things. When you are white, you may not think about racism or you think that it ­doesn’t affect you. It can be off-putting at first. But then you have to realize your ancestors were wrong and made the wrong choice.”

       Pirtle says that some visitors romanticize the past of historic sites such as Sotterley. “Someone will say Oh, I wish I could’ve lived here back then … But they don’t realize that there was no way anyone could have had all this without the physical labor of those slaves.”

       As a part of the UNESCO project, Sotterley is also recognized as a Site of Memory, signifying the property as a place of deep significance for protecting and promoting this history. Sotterley joins other locales to commemorate the Day of Remembrance on Aug. 23, with a ceremony marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first documented Africans in British North America. 

       “For true healing, as a country, we have to address all of this,” says Ann Chinn, executive director of the Middle Passage Project. “We cannot look at this country and not recognize the contributions and impact that people of African descent made upon it and who we are today.”

       It’s a history that Sotterley has learned it cannot ignore if it wants to remain relevant. The plantation was once on a list of the most endangered historic places in America. Thanks to the outreach and research by Callum, Pirtle and descendants of both the enslaved and the owners, the site is blazing its way into a brighter future.

       Embracing a complicated past and educating future generations, “that’s where our power lies,” Pirtle says, “with our descendants, to claim Sotterley as their ancestral home. For better or for worse.”