The initial draw was the promise of $600.
For five days of work, two high school students could earn money helping out on a project related to the history of Charles County and a native son who was the inspiration for the title character of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
For rising high school seniors Chadeya Miller of Maurice J. McDonough and Jakob Gammons of North Point, the experience of working on an archeological dig of Josiah Henson’s birthplace garnered much more than an influx of funds.
It opened their eyes to the intricate — sometimes tedious — practice of discovering and preserving history. It also introduced them to the story of a man who was born into slavery on the La Grange property in Port Tobacco and would become a pillar of the Afro-Canadian community.
The Charles County Branch of the NAACP and other project organizers wanted to open the dig to high school students. “Education is everything,” said Janice Wilson, president of the county’s NAACP branch. “I don’t feel archeology is a really popular field for students, especially African-American students. [The project] would give them a nice experience and maybe inspire them.”
Julia King, associate professor of anthropology at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, led a team of six in a search of Josiah Henson’s birthplace. King’s expertise lies in the Chesapeake region, she’s keen on researching and studying Anglo and Indian relations. The time when Henson was alive, “Wasn’t really my period,” she said.
But gentle and persistent “badgering” by local avocational historian Mike Sullivan and project funding by Port Tobacco native, Baltimore-based Gordon Croft, sold King on the idea of finding Henson’s birthplace.
His story was another selling point. “Black history is American history,” King said. “Slavery is very much a part of American history, and we’re not going to wash it away by not talking about it. When you read his narrative; it’s just an extraordinary narrative. He is a flesh and blood hero.”
King said some historical figures are portrayed as almost God-like. “Look at [George] Washington, who was a great man. But you read about some of the things he did and you think, ‘Did this real man even exist?’”
Henson’s actions, like Washington’s and other historical figures, shaped nations. When his owner changed a deal he had with Henson to buy his freedom, Henson escaped — with his whole family — to Canada. In the North he founded a town called Dawn for escaped slaves.
“He is doing things that are helping move this machine forward as we try to form a more perfect union,” King said.
Meet the interns
When putting together the project — one that not only would uncover American history, but African American history, as well — King reached out to the NAACP and Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) wondering if they could help out. “Maybe we should get some high school kids involved,” she thought.
During the last week of the project, Miller and Gammons joined King’s team. All the students who applied had outstanding credentials, Wilson said. But Miller’s and Gammon’s edged ahead of the pack because they went “the extra mile,” Wilson said. “They left an impression.”
Miller arrived on the site having loaded up on research about Henson. She went through microfiche of Port Tobacco Times, looking at tax records and census reports. “I wanted to know a little more about him and [La Grange master] Francis Newman.”
The two spent time on the site and at the college, cataloguing finds. “We were in the lab with a collider, a bucket of water and a toothbrush,” Miller said. They would consult a book to figure out what they found. “Oh, it’s this color,” Miller said of bits of porcelain and glass. “So, this is probably what it’s from.” At the end of their time with the project, the two presented their findings and shared their experiences with an audience at St. Mary’s College. Miller put together a video (which King is nudging her to put on YouTube) and Gammons created a PowerPoint presentation.
“They were excellent,” King said of Gammons and Miller. “They hit the ground running. I feel like taking these two in front of my college students and saying, ‘See? This is how it’s done.’ They’re that good.”
Miller wants to study mechanical engineering and minor in archelogy. Bridging the two interests, she said she has an interest in designing equipment that can be used by archeologists. Gammons wants to get into law enforcement. King said she sees the similarities between the law and archeology.
“I can see it … law enforcement, forensics,” she said. “We’re looking for clues at a site, asking ‘What went on here?’”
Gammons, who is in North Point’s criminal justice program, has an interest in history. Never taken part in an archeological dig, he figured it would be a good way to learn more. At first, the project seemed massive. “It was a little daunting when I got there. But we took it area by area.” Now, Gammons is thinking about minoring in African-American history in college.
Henson’s story was told by the man himself in “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself,” published in 1849. The narrative inspired Stowe’s novel.
Ultimately, King would like to see a historical marker placed at La Grange recognizing it as Henson’s birthplace. Gammons filled out the marker application. “You have to demonstrate state significance,” King said. “Henson is of national significance.” Wilson wants Henson’s story discussed in the county’s history and social studies classrooms.
King said Henson and his story are part of the fabric of Canada and it is time for Charles County to recognize his place in local history. Wilson agrees.
“It’s a source of pride for African-Americans,” she said. “He is such an important person who actually left his footprints in Charles County.”
To those who argue Henson left La Grange when he was 8, King points out Stratford Hall, the birthplace of Robert E. Lee, is a national landmark and Lee spent less than his first four years there. Washington’s birthplace, Popes Creek Planation, is a national park. He moved from the home when he was three.
“It is time for Henson to take his place in the pantheon of our national heroes,” King said.
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