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Oldest free African-American community possibly uncovered

Yahoo News
A sample of the material recovered showing small-scale blacksmithing. (Photo courtesy of Archaeology in Annapolis)
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A sample of the material recovered showing small-scale blacksmithing. (Photo courtesy of Archaeology in Annapolis)

A historic neighborhood known as the Hill in Easton, Maryland, might be the site of the oldest free African-American community.

According to researchers from Morgan State University and the University of Maryland who are wrapping up a three-week dig, preliminary evidence seems to show that the neighborhood predates the earliest known free black community, Treme in New Orleans, by two decades.

The U.S. Census counts 410 freed slaves settling in the downtown Easton site between 1789 and 1801. A census record from 1800 shows three free African-Americans lived on the property.

“The census evidence shows they were here,” University of Maryland archaeologist Mark Leone, who is leading the excavation and directs the Archaeology in Annapolis program, told Yahoo News from the site. “We’re trying to find what’s connected to them in the ground," he said. “We’ll get there, but we just started.”

Slaves who had bought their own freedom or were freed by Methodists and Quakers for religious reasons likely ended up at the Hill. The unique spot, home of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, who grew up nearby, was a freed slave community that lived among whites, said Leone.

The area is on the National Register of Historic Places that includes the Easton district. The dig took place at the Talbot County Women's Club, which is located in a house that dates to 1793. The dig is being done in collaboration with Historic Easton, which is funding the research.

“The thing about Talbot County is, it’s rich in history,” Carlene Phoenix, president of Historic Easton, told the Washington Post. “But when it comes to especially African American history, it was always about slavery. But now we’ve got another story.”

Students and experts alike combed through rectangular pits, searching for artifacts. Evidence collected suggest that one of the free African-Americans who lived there was a metal worker on a small scale, making nails. Evidence that they raised chickens for eggs is another clue.

“This has always been here,” said Leone of the Hill. “It’s never been celebrated and its importance has never been advertised.”

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