Saturday, August 01, 2009

Thrown Off of the Plantation

About a month ago, I decided to blow off some steam and go visit Frederick Douglass's childhood homes in Talbot County, Maryland. I packed up my copies of the annotated Narrative and Young Frederick Douglass, and set out over the Bay Bridge.

Originally, I had hoped to rent a bike there, and cruise around the county with the Talbot County Historical Society's Frederick Douglass Driving Tour map, but poor planning and a lack of awareness of small town life left me mapless and in the middle of some dreary weather. Instead, I just drove about, searching for the actual sites of Betsy Bailey's cabin, Thomas Auld's St. Michael's home, and the Lloyd plantation, Wye House.

I had taken this driving trip many years ago in about 2003 or 2004, and recalled some of the information. The main piece that I remember about Wye House was that it lay down a particular road that the Driving Tour map had indicated was "Private." At the time, I saw no "Private" signs, but still did not venture further. This time, I would not be deterred.

This part of Maryland is quite rural to a city girl like me. Like many rural, coastal areas, it has a clear caste system. You have the parts that are clean and polished, painted bright colors and manicured for either the tourists or the wealthy people who use "summer" as a verb. Then, you have the people who live there year round, usually working in agriculture, industry, or, most likely, the service industry. There is a color line, too; and often a line of immigration status. When you wander about the country roads, or hang out after-hours or in the off-seasons, you see this.

That isn't quite what this post is about, however.

I drove along these country roads, which became progressively narrower with each turn; and, with each turn the quality of the pavement corresponded to the size and condition of the houses. Most of the roads became simply tunnels in the trees, and, with the overcast weather, seemed as if they took me down into a Gothic dream where one could easily believe in ghosts and haints and liminal spirits. Then, I encountered a vulture feasting on roadkill:

Using a printout of an historical map of Talbot County and a printout from Mapquest, as well as the information in the footnotes and annotations of my two books, I circled in closer and closer to my estimated location of Wye House. After about an hour or two, I had assumed that I had seen the road to the plantation, which was, in fact, marked "Private," (about a 1/4 mile behind me when I took the vulture picture) and decided to see if I could get myself to the shore of one of the peninsulas to get a less populated view of the Bay.

That's when I came across this:

The service entrance to Wye House. This, according to Dickson Preston, author of Young Frederick Douglass, would have been the road that Douglass, his mother, his grandmother, and all of the other slaves took onto the plantation. Today it is the "service entrance," then it was the "servants' entrance."

A few dozen feet further on, I encountered the main gates:

Of course, I slammed on the brakes and leapt out of the car. Something contracted in my stomach. Frederick Douglass was enslaved here. For two years, he lived here. He saw his aunt beaten to a pulp here. He was abused by his "Aunt" Katy here. He felt the absence of love here. He first knew himself to be standing in the presence of starving power that wanted to eradicate his person, if not his body. Then, he created a record that opened a window into the lives of the 300 or more people who knew this place more deeply than its owner.

I paused a moment to contemplate that, to honor Douglass and to honor the others, the ones whose names I have found in the Lloyd Papers (MS 2001) in the Maryland Historical Society: Old and Young Lambert, Daphnis, Cato, Joe, "Lame" Tom, Mary and Eliza the twins, the "absconded" Isaac and Jim and a whole list of others. Then, a car drove by, and I decided that I should move along before anyone thought I was casing the joint.

There wasn't a shoulder, and I was curious as to what lay further on, so I did not turn around and kept going down the road. I passed a sign that said "Wye Town," which was the neighboring Lloyd plantation, and where a realtor was having an "Open House." I considered turning in, just to see what might be there, but decided I'd better not. Finally, I found the end of the public part of the road. Another "Private" sign greeted me and I thought, "well, that must be where Cheney and Rumsfeld live." Actually, I would have been shot by snipers had that been true, but I wanted to amuse myself. I turned around and headed back.

As I passed the entrance to Wye Town, I noticed a red car coming toward me. I thought nothing of it, and it passed. As I drew closer to Wye House, I realized that I could see the Big House through the trees. Checking in my rear view mirror to make sure no one was behind me so I could stop for pictures, I noticed that the red car had turned into the Wye Town drive. "Must be a real estate agent," I thought.

Sitting in my car with the front window rolled down, I took a few pictures, trying to zoom in as much as I could. This was the best that I could do:

I rolled along, trying to get a better perspective, then decided I had gotten what I came for and sped up. Glancing back in the rear view mirror, I noticed the red car coming up behind me very quickly. So quickly, in fact, that I thought I should get out of the way. Without a shoulder on the road, the best place to pull over was in that small drive before the gates of Wye House. So, I put on my turn signal and steered myself over.

The red car pulled up beside me and penned me in. The driver rolled down her window.

"Do you have a problem?" she asked. Her tone suggested that now I did.

"No, ma'am," I said, ducking my head and giving a little monkey grin as if to say, "don't mind me, I'm just a dumb ole tourist." Meanwhile, I scoped her out. She wasn't in a uniform or any other sort of official garb. Her car was such a recent purchase that the new car scent wafted above my exhaust. It did not have any indication of lights or radios. "No ma'am," I repeated, "I just saw you coming up fast so decided to get out of the way."

"That wasn't the question," she said. "I asked, 'Do you have a problem.'"

Shit, I thought, now I have to give a geeky explanation. Flashing another monkey grin, I said, "This is where Frederick Douglass's master lived..."

"No," she corrected me. "That was where Frederick Douglass lived."

She said it as if the 7-9 year old boy who was a slave on this property owned it. Ah, I thought, so that's how they play it around here. What family did she hail from? Covey's?

I also kinda resented her patronizing tone.

"Yes, where Frederick Douglass lived," I echoed her, with yet another monkey grin. "Anyway, I study him." I held up my copy of the Narrative. "I study him, and I just wanted to see where he was."

She lifted her chin and looked down her nose. "There's nothing to see," she said.

If by "nothing" she meant no museums, no tchotchkes, no markers, no indication of any presence of Frederick Douglass or other slaves, then she was correct. I think she really meant that these weren't the 'droids that I was looking for.

In any case, I said, "yes, I know. I just wanted to take a picture and move on. I'm done now. Thank you. Have a nice day." I may have babbled a few more pleasantries as she pulled out of my way and watched me drive off.

The owners of the house are comfortable enough with the reason for the plantation's fame to invite archaeologists to excavate the grounds for evidence of slave life, but the neighbors may not be. This woman was just looking out for her neighbors, acting as the neighborhood watch; and she did her job well. Nonetheless, her hostility, in the context in which I was operating, left me with that Faulkner feeling that the past isn't dead. It isn't even past.

Technically, I wasn't thrown off of the plantation because, technically, I wasn't actually on the plantation. Still, it sure as hell felt that way.

Damn, I thought. What if I had been black?

I don't believe in ghosts, but I do believe in haunted places, it's just that the living are the haints.


Pfeng said...

It's probably a good thing you weren't on a bike. (Or black.) What an overreaction.

squadratomagico said...

Clio, your story was beautifully told!

inktopia7 said...

Really powerful, Clio...

Digger said...

Great post; history most certainly isn't dead!

Funny she claimed Douglass and not his owner; perks to being famous, I suppose. If you'd mentioned any of the other slaves from there, I'd put money her response would have been, "who?"

dykewife said...

wow, if she'd done that in canada she could have gotten into trouble. neighbourhood watch people do that, watch, and then call the police. they're not allowed to accost people on public streets.

i guess history can be a dangerous pursuit.

my word verification is "arrhoot". i guess there is a pirate owl about :D

The Steel Magnolia said...

Oh, my. I'm not even sure what to say, but I feel chilly reading your account. Thanks for sharing (and maybe next time give that woman five across her lip . . . .)

Susan said...

Isn't it amazing how frightened people are of the word "slavery"? Getting permissions for my book, I had labeled a portrait "X with slave" and I got a stern note from the owner that it was a page, not a slave...a member of the family. (Seriously, I didn't make that up.)

But this sounds seriously spooky.

RPS77 said...

It makes me wonder what exactly bothered her so much - was it just having a stranger drive through the area looking for a historic landmark, or the fact that the area is best known for reasons connected to slavery, or both, or something else?

bitternsweet said...

I've said it before: I'm so excited by your reporting on Douglass landmarks. I've been trying to get out to Wye for the past few years but haven't been able to make it happen -- now I know that just getting there wouldn't necessarily have been as satisfying as I have imagined. At least I get to live vicariously through you. Wye is a fascinating site, though -- for all the ways it shaped FD's conception of plantation culture & for its longevity today.

I assume, Clio, that since you are an expert on all things FD, you already know about the strange/surreal afterlife of Covey's farm = now the weekend home for Donald Rumsfeld? That always strikes me as entirely appropriate.

writervixen said...

Hi Clio --

I felt a knot in my stomach reading your post. Her behavior was both menacing and inappropriate.

First of all, common sense & instinct clue us in re: a nuisance versus an actual threat. You never even got out of your car!

Second, if she genuinely had "neighborhood watch" kinds of concerns, she should have just called the police. The plantation's historical past probably renders it "an attractive nuisance" legally, and the authorities won't/can't/wouldn't intervene as she did. Getting up in your grill in that manner was waaaay out of line.

I don't know your ethnicity, but I suspect you're not black. I grew up (white) in Northern Virginia and know some white people still behave appallingly. The (unfortunate) reason that I suspect you're not black is that black people routinely deal with so much of this kind of harassment that they probably wouldn't even bother bringing it up.

Anyway, I had no idea that you were such a Frederick Douglass aficionado. I'm going to go back and read your other posts on him. I don't know much beyond the historical overview, so I'm looking forward to learning more!

Ciao. ;)


The History Enthusiast said...

Thank you for sharing this story. I have read (and taught) Douglass's narrative multiple times, and I would so love to be able to visit the Wye House. I'm sorry your experience wasn't more pleasant.

We are similar in that I like to see the physical places where historical events took place, even if there is no "touristy" element to them (or *especially* if there are no tourists). Do you ever visit the cemeteries where your subjects are buried? I like to talk to their graves. Maybe that's weird; I don't know.

And, btw, I just LOVE your Star Wars reference :)

profacero said...

Rumsfeld, in Covey's house?! That is also haunting.

Molly said...

Great post! I'm just getting into this side of the family but Rebecca Lloyd of Wye House plantation was my grandmother (many generations ago, of course). Amazing history!!!!


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