Discoveries of items ranging from Native American pottery to tobacco pipe stems are providing clues about how enslaved Africans and African Americans lived on a former Jesuit Plantation in St. Mary’s County.
The Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), in partnership with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the GU272 Descendants Association, excavated three homesites in October 2020, and discussed the findings during a public seminar in July.
Now home to Newtowne Neck State Park, the site is considered by archaeologists to be one of the oldest known homes of enslaved Africans and African Americans in Maryland, with one of the sites dating back 300 years.
“I just think it was interesting how the cultures coalesce in one space,” said Dr. Julie Schablitsky, MDOT’s Chief of Cultural Resources, during the July 8 seminar at St. Francis Xavier Church. “On Newtowne Neck, the archaeology is telling the story of how the Jesuits from Europe, people from Africa, and Native people interacted together.”
Schablitsky and other archaeologists said Native American pottery was one of the most interesting findings. The evidence suggests African and African Americans traded and/or had close relationships with Native people.
“We never hear of how these populations lived, worked, survived together,” said the Rev. Dante Eubanks, representative of the GU272 Descendants Association. “We hear about them individually, but we don’t hear about them in a collective space.”
The GU272 name references events in 1838, when the Jesuits sold more than 272 enslaved people from plantations in Southern Maryland to pay off Georgetown University’s debts. The enslaved Africans and African Americans were separated from their families and sold to plantation owners in southern Louisiana. Some of the descendants created the GU272 Descendants Association.
On behalf of Maryland and MDOT, Dr. Schablitsky gifted 272 oyster shells uncovered from the homesites of the enslaved in Newtowne to the association.
“Please know that the GU272 Descendants Association is thankful and appreciative of the work you’ve done and so graciously shared with us,” association President Cheryllyn Branche wrote to Dr. Schablitsky. “Not just your findings but allowing us to touch a piece of family history through the 272 shells you sent to us from the hallowed grounds of our ancestors.”
The oldest homesite is located at the end of the neck, closer to the water. When the Jesuit’s manor house was built during the mid-18th century enslaved people were moved closer to them. Archaeologists found oyster shells, tobacco pipe stems, fishbones, ceramic sherds and preserved tobacco seeds. The two older sites also had Native pottery associated with the homes.
One of the most interesting finds was a broken crucifix.
“The crucifix really spoke to me,” said Maryland State Park Ranger Angela Crenshaw, who leads the Maryland Park Service’s Interpreting Difficult Histories Team. “I myself have and use prayer beads.”
Ranger Crenshaw was among the guests invited to speak at the July 8 public presentation, where some of the artifacts discovered at the homesites were displayed. “Maryland is home to over 70 state parks and many of them have a connection to American Slavery,” she said.
The Rev. Eubanks, who attended the presentation with his son, called the findings, “very overwhelming, but it’s also powerful at the same time. Being able to connect to some of those pieces that were found at Newtowne, it just gives you a deeper sense of that belonging.”
It “also kind of gives you purpose to even push further, to make sure that this history is not just found and preserved, but that this history is cherished and that future generations will be able to learn if it’s important,” he said.
Until now, people visiting Newtowne Neck State Park would probably miss all this history, Dr. Schablitsky said.
“All you see is the chapel along with this large 18th century manor house, but there’s no evidence that enslaved and people of African descent lived there on this landscape or even Native people,” she said.
Ranger Crenshaw said she’s committed to ensuring the history isn’t forgotten.
“We look forward to sharing this history with everybody,” she said, “and making sure people understand why Newtowne Neck – and why the story of the GU272 – is American History, not just African American history.”