Letter from Maryland (http://www.archaeology.org/) by Julie Schablitsky

Some African Americans, however, haven’t lost touch with this past, and have found success tracing their lineages through manumission records, the wills of slave owners, and censuses. Nancy Daniels, for example, is a genealogist. She recalls that when she was younger, her grandmother told her, “Remember who we are, and where we came from. We are from Africa, and we are from Europe.” Daniels found her family, the Burleys, in a record that documented the manumission of Thomas Burley’s family from one Brice J. Worthington in 1854. She also learned that she was descended from Francis Scott Key, and that the Worthington family owned Belvoir during the first half of the nineteenth century. The discovery of the slave quarters at Belvoir was overwhelming, she says. “The stories and old records mentioned a plantation down in the country of Anne Arundel County,” says Daniels. “We never knew where they were talking about. But now we do. It’s Belvoir.”

It was important for this archaeological project to include descendant communities early in the process. Some, including Hayes-Williams, were able to do more than visit the site. They were able to get their hands dirty. As an historian, she is more familiar with archives than with dirt, screens, and bones. At one point in the excavation, Hayes-Williams uncovered a blue shell-edged plate fragment from the fireplace that once warmed a bedroom. She felt an “awakening,” she says. “It was a tragic yet beautiful way to connect, through touching, feeling, what they once held in their hands.”

(Courtesy Maryland Department of Transportation, State Highway Administration)The brick floors show wear patterns from the footsteps of people who passed from one room to the next. Image source

The landowner, Rockbridge Academy, is committed to preserving the site for future generations, so the fireplaces, foundation, and brick floors were carefully reburied. Before this happened, a closing ceremony was held to remember those who persevered at Belvoir. Visitors walked down to the quarters from the manor house and saw the important architectural elements within the building—the central fireplace where meals were cooked, a worn patch of brick at a threshold where people scuffed their feet as they passed from one room into the next. At the close of the ceremony, the First Christian Community Church of Annapolis choir gathered in the center of the ruin and sang “How Great Thou Art.”

Before the day was over, Daniels shared some news about her personal search for her ancestors. Through genetic testing, she had recently learned that the Burley and Brogden descendants share the same DNA, which means she is also related to Abraham, Cinderella’s husband. Through intermarriage and inheritance, enslaved Africans were passed between colonial planter families, resulting in close kinships among them. Today, the story of African America survives in this lineage, on faded parchment, and in the broken bits of everyday life. Daniels urged her community to continue the search for their ancestors. “They struggled and fought to live for their family, ” she said. “It is important you go out and find them—they are there, and they are waiting for their stories to be told.”