Chestertown, MD, June 29, 2007 — The story of slavery in America and the story of the Chesapeake Bay region have been intertwined since the beginning: from the first North American shipload of Africans in chains, to the heroic achievements of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, to Nat Turner and one of the largest slave uprisings in American history, the Chesapeake provided the regional stage for a national saga. From enslavement to liberation to hard-fought civil rights, it is a saga that continued through to the all-too-recent past, and still echoes in our national life, constantly and on multiple levels, today.
On a quest to explore this vital thread of history, Washington College's C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience is embarking this July on "A Chesapeake Journey: From Slavery to Freedom." Traveling by roadway and waterway, circumnavigating the entire Bay region, "A Chesapeake Journey" will visit various Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., sites that shed light on the history of American slavery and the African-American struggle. Along the route, the itinerant party of Washington College faculty, staff, students and other area participants will be joined by prominent historians whose lectures will enhance the exploration of historic locales, tying them in with the larger themes. Living history presentations and discussions with a variety of experts on African-American history will round out the week-long tour. Interested members of the public can follow the Chesapeake Journey trip at the program's website, which includes a full itinerary and a blog that will chronicle the trip day-by-day in words and pictures.
A summer institute funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Teaching American History Program, "A Chesapeake Journey" is a capstone offering of the four-year Washington's Legacy program. Adam Goodheart, Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the C.V. Starr Center, will lead the institute along with Alexa Cawley, Assistant Professor of History at Delaware State University. Historical issues that will be explored include the arrival of the first Africans in America, the development of the Chesapeake plantation culture, the experience of free blacks during the colonial and antebellum periods, the rise of the abolitionist movement and Underground Railroad, the life stories of such figures as Frederick Douglass, African-American participation in the Revolution and Civil War, and current attempts to memorialize slavery and freedom.
"A Chesapeake Journey" begins on Sunday, July 8, in Chestertown at Custom House, home of the C.V. Starr Center, for introductions and an overview of the planned itinerary. From Chestertown the group will travel to the birthplace of Frederick Douglass, then on to the plantation where he lived briefly as a child, a mansion that has remained in the same family for 11 generations. In Easton, historian Ira Berlin will present a lecture and discussion providing an overview of slavery in the Chesapeake. A Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, Berlin is the author of several books on slavery, including Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in Mainland North America and Generations of Captivity: A History of Slaves in the United States.
On July 9, the route heads southward and across the mouth of Chesapeake Bay to Hampton, Va., for a visit to the site where the first enslaved Africans set foot in the American colonies. On July 10, the travelers will spend the entire day at Colonial Williamsburg, where they will participate in a storytelling workshop and view living history demonstrations that shed light on the inherent contradiction of owning slaves during the struggle for independence from Britain.
At Yorktown, the party will board the charter boat North Star on July 11 and head up the Bay. While underway, there will be a discussion of the routes over both water and land that slaves followed when escaping from bondage. Historian T. Stephen Williams will accompany the voyage and discuss resistance to slavery, including abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. The story will be told of the schooner Pearl, a vessel that carried escaping slaves over these very waters in 1848.
The North Star will put in at St. Mary's City, the site of Maryland's first capital, built upon the success of tobacco cultivation. The region served as the cradle of a new and distinctly American culture, blending elements of Africa, Europe and the New World. On July 12, "A Chesapeake Journey" will feature a day of hands-on programming, beginning with an examination of artifacts unearthed by St. Mary's City archaeologists and discussion about bringing archaeology and artifacts into the classroom.
From St. Mary's City, the journey route wends its way to Sotterley, an excellent example of a Tidewater plantation. The group will learn about the generations of the white owners and enslaved men, women and children who interacted on this site during its long history. The group will explore both the 1703 mansion and a rare 1830s slave house, while learning about Sotterly's innovative approaches to teaching history by using site-specific primary sources, archaeological excavations and the landscape.
From Sotterley, it will be on to Alexandria, Va., one one of the nation's largest export markets for the sale of slaves to the Deep South. Here the traveling party will spend the next two nights. There will be a late-afternoon walking tour of some of the many significant African-American sites in the area, including the remains of a slave market.
July 13 will be spent at George Washington's Mount Vernon, with an exploration of the controversy surrounding Washington's ownership of more than 300 slaves. Renowned author Henry Wiencek will set the stage at Alexandria's Lyceum with a lecture on the paradoxes, both individual and national, embodied in Washington's relationship with slavery. Once at Mount Vernon, the group will learn about slave life on the plantation and the relationship between the Washington family and members of its enslaved work force. Staff members engaged in interpreting this history, as well as a direct descendant of Washington slaves, will meet with the group.
The journey concludes on July 14 with a visit to Frederick Douglass's home in Washington, D.C., and a talk by American University's Edward C. Smith, an expert on Douglass's life and legacy. Smith will discuss the crucial role Douglass played during and after the Civil War. A stop at the Freedman's Memorial in Lincoln Park—dedicated in April 1876 with an oration by Douglass himself—will provide participants with an enduring image of the task before them: helping others to understand and challenge the legacies of slavery that still form part of the national landscape.
Established in 2000 with a grant from the New York-based Starr Foundation, the C.V. Starr Center draws on the special historical strengths of Washington College and colonial Chestertown to explore the early republic, the rise of democracy, and the manifold ways in which the founding era continues to shape American culture, through innovative educational programs, scholarship and public outreach. In addition to the Presidential Fellows Program, the Starr Center also offers a range of special programs and extracurricular opportunities to Washington College students, including the Comegys Bight Fellowships and Frederick Douglass Fellowships, as well as weekend road trips and summer programs. For more information, visit http://starrcenter.washcoll.edu.