Tuajuanda C. Jordan, President
Sotterley Plantation Slave Cabin Restoration Celebration
April 21, 2017
“Sotterley is the only tidewater plantation in Maryland open to the public that is a testament to all those who lived, died, labored, and resisted here.”
Many people really relish the opportunity to visit plantations and experience the grandeur of a bygone era. I am not one of those people. There was a comedienne named Moms Mabley who had a routine about a mean old man who was her husband. The old man died and Moms Mabley said, “They say you ain’t s’pose to say nothin’ about the dead that ain’t good. (Pause) He dead. Good.”
When I think about slavery, I don’t relish the opportunity to visit plantation homes. I am inclined to say, “They dead. Good.”
To be perfectly honest, at this point in my life I am not interested in the plantation owners, how they made their money, or their lifestyles. Why? Because I know that they made their living on the backs of my people. They built their mansions from the sweat and used the skills of my people. Their children were nursed from the breasts of my people. Their sick and their elderly were cared for by the hands of my people.
By my people…People who, when they arrived in this land, were treated less than human and who lived in cabins not too far from that place that some call the mansion and my people called the Big House and I call the den of oppression.
When I visit a plantation, a mix of emotions that I cannot explain overtakes me. You must live it to understand. When I visit a plantation, I don’t want to spend the precious moments I have remaining on this earth looking at all the things they had in the Big House. Rather, I am more interested in seeing the cabins and feeling the presence of my people – where they ate and slept and suffered and laughed and loved and dreamed.
Did slaves dream? They had to. What did they dream about? Did they dream about freedom and what it would be like to be the master of their own destiny? Dreaming helps one cope with reality when that reality is less than what one had hoped for. I know they had to have dreams. I wonder, though, could the slaves of Sotterley have ever imagined what has transpired down the road in St. Mary’s City?
In my youth, the thought of a slave cabin sent me into despair and darkness as I contemplated the difficult life my people lived – a life where they could not be free to just be. Now, although I am not foolish enough to believe in the Uncle Tom’s Cabin persona of the happy-go-lucky Negro, I am able in some strange way to draw strength from the cabin. I find solace when I think about the resilience, the creativity, the strength and fortitude of those who lived there. How do I know they had such things? Because they survived! If they had not, there would be no Tuajuanda.
The College is in the midst of a series of construction projects that, in 2019, will result in a new academic building with an auditorium as well as a new athletics complex. In the process of performing the required archeological survey, we have discovered evidence of slave quarters from two distinct periods, both preceding the founding of the College. The artifacts identified at the site of the slave quarters indicate that the slaves were involved in their local economy and that they were not only resilient but also resistant. There is evidence that 19 of the 40 slaves went with the British during the War of 1812 and eventually ended up in either Trinidad or Nova Scotia. What happened to the remaining slaves?
St. Mary’s College of Maryland was founded in 1840 as a female seminary. In Fall 2016, the College “discovered” that in the 1850 Census, the Seminary owned six slaves. These discoveries have given the campus pause because now it requires us to come to grips with our past as an institution. Could it be that the six slaves owned by the College were in some way related to the slaves on the property just across the road?
I have some students who are deeply troubled by the relationship that we are uncovering between the College and slavery. They are experiencing the same despair that I have had for most of my life when confronted with issues related to slavery. They are uncomfortable walking around campus because they are worried that they are walking around on their ancestors.
The discoveries are indeed cause for reflection but they also illuminate a couple of issues. First, that we have not done a good job educating our students and the public in general about the history of Southern Maryland. Second, those of us who are people of color and descendants of former slaves really need to pay attention to the history and be proud of what we have done as a people. We are survivors and we have played a significant role in the country’s prosperity that is due, in no small way, to the strength, resilience, creativity, and ingenuity of our people.
These triumphs should be acknowledged and commemorated in all that we do. The care that has been taken to acknowledge and preserve that challenging period in America’s history is essential if we are not to repeat the errors of our past. Sotterley Plantation has and will continue to play an important role in helping us all obtain an understanding of and an appreciation for that history. Restoring plantations in their entirety, which includes both the mansion and the slave cabins, is an essential element in fostering an understanding of that time and place. And, when we take the long view, this understanding of our history should give us a greater sense of purpose.
Slave cabins give me strength. They inspire me to succeed. My success will be defined by how well I teach, guide, and lead the next generation to a better understanding of their past and a stronger sense of purpose to ablate social injustice and to create a more just and humane society for all.
I tell students who are troubled by the recent discoveries at the College that after we get through the emotional anguish associated with the realization of the history of this place, we cannot let the lives of our ancestors be in vain. They lived, labored, resisted, and died so that we could be at a better place. I have no doubt that they dreamed of a better time and place for their children and their children’s children.
Did they dream that their descendants would be able to walk freely and be educated at one of the finest institutions in the state alongside the descendants of their masters and that their descendants would perform equally as well in the rigorous academic environment? Did they dream that one of their descendants would preside over that institution right here in Southern Maryland, arguably the epicenter of Maryland’s slave economy? Did they dream that a man descended from their native land would be the most powerful man in the free world? I daresay that these things were unfathomable to them, but we know that those things became reality.
We, those who have struggled with this period of our history, cannot allow that history to burden us. We need places like Sotterley and people like Nancy and Jeanne to help us uncover and understand that past. We need to rejoice in the grit and determination of our people to not just survive but to live and we need to help others respect what has come from that living. It is in this way that we can make our ancestors proud because we are the realization of a dream unimagined.
As James Allen wrote in As a Man Thinketh, “the greatest achievement was at first and for a time a dream. The oak sleeps in an acorn; the bird waits in the egg; and in the highest vision of the soul a waking angel stirs. Dreams are the seedlings of reality.”
I am grateful for the legacy of Agnes Cane Callum and for the opportunity to participate in this monumental dedication. Congratulations on this important day in the history of Sotterley Plantation, and thank you for helping to educate us on the significance of this period in America’s history.
 Allen, J. (1924). As a man thinketh. As a man thinketh. Girard-Kan: Haldeman-Julius Co.