Thousands of pages documenting slavery found in attic of Eastern
“It was important to the community because this will connect the
dots for people and the younger generation, to let them know how
things were. To move forward, you have to see what the past was
like,” said Carolyn Brooks, a community historian with the
Chesapeake Heartland Project.
About 2,000 pages dating from the late 1600s to early 1800s were
found in a plastic trash bag in the attic of a 200-year-old
house near Chestertown, Maryland, as the owner, Nancy Bordely
Lane, was cleaning it out this spring. The foundation of the
house, built in 1803 on property that had remained in the family
since 1667, was reportedly damaged and the structure was going
to be demolished. The documents were headed for the garbage, but
were rescued and delivered to Dixon’s Crumpton Auction in waxed
seafood boxes, John Chaski, an antique-manuscript expert, told
the Washington Post.
Darius Johnson, a Washington College alum, was one of several
people who saw pictures of the documents up on the auction
house’s Facebook page. After moving back to Kent County from
Baltimore, Johnson became part of the Chesapeake Heartland
project at Washington College, in collaboration with the
Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and
Culture and local partners. For him, the documents couldn’t have
shown up at a better time.
“This project has started to give me pieces of myself and who I
am and it's something I couldn't be more grateful for,” said
Johnson, who also works with a local homeownership initiative
for low-income residents, many of whom are Black. Among the
papers was a contract taking over a 50-acre farm originally
purchased by Solomon Willson, a free mixed-race man, in 1802.
“Tying in the historical narrative has been critical because I
want the Black people of Kent County to know that, just a
generation or two away, our people owned something - and within
that generation or two, we lost that. It’s not that far out of
reach, it’s attainable,” he said.
Lane didn’t know how the collection of documents from several
different families that were interwoven through marriage ended
up there or how long it had been there. But while she may not
have recognized their significance, members of the Black
community did, banding together with the college to raise funds
and purchase the entire collection. Washington College alumnus
and trustee Norris Commodore - the first African American from
the local community to graduate from the college and after whom
part of the collection is named - and his wife, Terry, were
among several Black donors that pitched in to buy the whole
collection for a price "in five figures."
“I love it,” Lane told the Washington Post after learning of the
sale. “History should be acknowledged.”