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Charmed Life

The Old Plantation

Michelle Gienow

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 2/13/2002

For all of America's fine talk of equality, one of the permanent features of our society is a staggeringly vast gap between the rich and the poor. The chasm has widened and narrowed from era to era, but it has always been huge.

This cheerless thought drummed in my brain as I examined the slave quarters at the Hampton National Historic Site in Towson. These simple buildings--one built of chinked logs, two of local fieldstone--stand in stark contrast to the Hampton Mansion, which sits on a hilltop a quarter-mile away. Each slave dwelling contains four rooms, two below and two above, duplex style; at one time, each of the structures had a basement kitchen. The rooms range in size from about 14 by 14 feet to 20 by 20, with large windows downstairs and small windows in the loft. Each room has a fireplace.

Compare the mansion, built in 1783 to house the Ridgely family and its many guests. The grand house boasts 33 rooms, 16 of them bedchambers. The surrounding estate, as preserved today, includes a rambling farmhouse, the three slave quarters, two stables, a mule barn, privies, a smokehouse, an icehouse, greenhouses, and an orangery. Many other structures have vanished, including dozens of slave quarters and houses for white indentured servants. At their greatest extent, Ridgely properties totaled about 25,000 acres; the enslaved population peaked in 1829 with 340 captive workers. All told, antebellum Hampton bore a greater resemblance to a medieval barony than to the most princely residence in modern Maryland.

In the winter 2000 edition of Maryland Historical Magazine, retired Goucher College history professor R. Kent Lancaster describes the Ridgelys as "a family who recorded every transaction however trivial" as long as it was relevant to business or household finances. Yet despite this punctilious accounting, the Ridgelys were remarkably quiet about their captive labor force. It seems they regarded slaves as valuable resources to be prudently managed: Clothing and shoes were handed out to slaves regularly, and when the workers got sick, the Ridgelys' own family physicians provided medical care. The last slave-owning mistress of Hampton, Eliza Ridgely, apparently recognized the captives' humanity: She provided them with church services and weddings, and gave Christmas presents to their children. Yet when the slaves got old--and economically useless--they disappeared from the estate records. "[I]t is rather shocking to discover," Lancaster writes, "that [in] what seems to be a listing of all slaves in the inventory . . . older slaves were simply not listed."

As to what life was like inside the spartan slave quarters, the records don't even tell how many families might have inhabited each building. "The existing houses seem to have been designed for double family use and not as dormitories," Lancaster writes, "but there is, unfortunately, no hard evidence at all to corroborate this." The historian also notes that the Hampton records are also silent as to how slaves were disciplined: "The thousands of records preserved by the family are white-engendered documents, and simply do not readily give information about control or treatment." The professor cites one contemporary report, by a Ridgely neighbor, that master Charles Carnan Ridgely (1760-1829) once had a slave whipped repeatedly for exhibiting a "defiant and sullen" attitude.

To their credit, the Ridgelys had a general (and, for the time, unusual) policy of keeping slave families intact. This might be just another example of enlightened self-interest--a way to maintain stability and relative contentment among the work force--or it may reflect some glimmer of paternalistic conscience. The most remarkable--and still unexplained--act in the century of slave-owning at Hampton was the decision by Charles Carnan Ridgely, in his will, to free most of his captives upon his death. Those having reached the age of 45 were to be kept and cared for; young slaves were to remain in captivity until they reached age 25 (for women) or 28 (for men). Those given their freedom were to be sent away without payment or property. The next generation of Ridgelys, never truly weaned of dependence on slave labor, rebuilt the captive labor force to about 75 individuals.

Concerning the captives' own sentiments, scholars have extremely little to go on. One researcher, having combed Hampton's chronicles, counted at least 60 instances of slaves fleeing the estate. In an interview, Lancaster noted that a scrap of evidence--a single letter from an Anne Arundel County slave owner--indicates that runaways from other areas found sanctuary in Hampton's slave community. After Emancipation, a number of erstwhile slaves stayed on with the Ridgely family as paid servants. Then there was Lucy Jackson, a strong-willed house servant who apparently fled the plantation in 1862 and, four years later, wrote to the Ridgelys demanding the return of clothing and other property she'd left behind.

Americans are routinely admonished not to judge the past by the values of the present, but the worldly, politically active Ridgelys were hardly ignorant of the moral arguments against slaveholding. While their wealth was ultimately based on the estate's iron mines and foundries, the Ridgelys certainly knew that their lavish lifestyle owed everything to involuntary, unpaid labor. The end of slavery brought them down many pegs; Eliza Ridgely, in her old age, lived in constant, delusional fear of a slave revolt.

In our own era, riches still derive from ill-paid labor, but today's near-slaves live hundreds or thousands of miles away from their corporate masters. One hundred fifty years from now, how will history judge the Reagan/Clinton/Bush era, during which hundreds of billionaires were created while America's homeless population boomed?

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