by Alex Brueggeman
(Read Part I here.)
For two sweltering summers – 2010 and 2011 – I was part of a group of students from Howard University, American University, Hood College and University of Maryland – College Park assisting with an excavation of a large open field on the property of Best Farm. We worked under the guidance of the Cultural Resource Management division and alongside preservationists, geographers and archeologists at Monocacy National Battlefield in Maryland.
L’Hermitage, the site’s French-Caribbean inspired home, loomed majestically in the background as we worked. Day after day, we uncovered a veritable treasure trove of artifacts that we attributed to the Vincendière’s estimated 90 slaves (making the family one of the largest slaveholders in Maryland). Among the many artifacts, we unearthed shards of pottery, brick and mortar, small animal bones, a child’s clay marble, and a tiny blue bead.
Eventually, we uncovered the stone foundations of the “slave village.” It was at that point that my attitude towards the magnificent main house changed.
Even though it was my anthropological duty to understand the historical context, remain objective, and to refrain from judging the character of the Vincendières, I found it incredibly difficult for me to not be angry and uncomfortable. As we pulled out more relics eroded by time and began to reveal a clouded story of a population long lost to history, I developed a quiet resentment towards the main house that I was once so enthralled with. It became darker and more ominous, almost taunting me as I excavated in the brutal July sun.
While working on the property I often thought of my own enslaved ancestors from my native Haiti as I sifted through the dry earth, a curious connection rank with symbolism and irony. Why were my people and those similarly bonded to L’Hermitage subjected to a legacy of anonymity? Why couldn’t their names be known, too? It wasn’t until years after the excavation ended that I realized that those questions could never be adequately answered. The lessons I learned from just asking such questions, however, proved to be most valuable.
To this day, I still enjoy visiting historic houses while “oohing and ahhing” when something piques my interest. At the same time, I also make sure to give myself the opportunity to be made uncomfortable by these places, their history and what they can often represent.
L’Hermitage taught me that history cannot be sufficiently understood in terms of binaries or dichotomies, and that adopting a holistic appreciation of it allows for individuals in the present to develop meaningful connections to times far removed.
History has the unique ability to teach us who we are and where we come from, and despite the bitterness I experienced while working at Monocacy National Battlefield, I left knowing that just because not everyone’s story is told, does not mean that it does not exist. And even though uncovering history’s details can make one feel uneasy and maybe even angry, I’ve been able to come to terms with the idea that learning about a painful past is better than no past at all.