On a trip to Maryland’s Eastern Shore, my two sisters and I went to visit a neighborhood in the town of Oxford, a place they regularly visited as kids during summer vacation. A sign approved by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had been installed there as part of the organization’s Slave Route project.
The sign was in the middle of a patch of ground that stirred all sorts of childhood memories for my two sisters, Malvina Kay and Marci Catlett. As children, they spent their days walking all around the town or riding the ferry back and forth across the Tred Avon River. But they didn’t recall ever hearing any discussion from the grownups about what this Middle Passage Port Marker commemorates.
Now they have. “The Slave Route project has created a label to encourage the preservation of sites of memories and the establishment of itineraries that can tell this story and ensure that this heritage receives due attention at the national, regional and international levels,” the sign reads. “Oxford is a documented Middle Passage port on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. As a major maritime tobacco seaport during the colonial period, there were four Transatlantic ships and twenty-five Intra-American voyages that delivered captive Africans to Oxford and local plantations.”
Twenty-five ships packed with African captives: the sign documents how much history is layered onto a childhood vacation spot—and how intimately slavery was bound up with the country’s founding. On Aug. 29, 1763, the Two Sisters was the first Middle Passage ship to arrive in Oxford; the last documented ship docked on Aug. 11, 1772, the eve of the American Revolution. But the last vessel to make the Middle Passage, The Experiment, the sign reads, “whose owners were from the Eastern Shore and among America’s founding families, arrived on July 4, 1772.”
Dates, it appears, mean different things to different people. In a speech from 1852 that still looms over the conscience of America, Frederick Douglass asked, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” For those Africans held captive on The Experiment, the 4th of July was a momentous date: it was the day that they, and their descendants, were delivered to Oxford and from there, to slavery on Maryland’s plantations.
The marker also speaks to survival. Oxford is in Talbot County, the birthplace of Frederick Douglass. Harriet Tubman was born in neighboring Dorchester County. Her maternal grandmother, who has been identified by the name “Modesty,” was believed to have been brought there directly from Africa. Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass lived to uplift their race and their country because of their African ancestors, men and women who somehow survived the Middle Passage voyage to land on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
But a few lines of text fail to speak to the enormity of the crime committed by whites who traded in souls and profited from bondage. The Africans transported to Oxford were among the millions of Africans who endured the barbaric evil of the transatlantic slave trade. Estimates vary widely, but somewhere between 10 million and 28 million were taken from their homes in the African interior, but half didn’t complete the journey to Africa’s western coast. Those who survived that long journey were held in dungeons that slavers operated.
After being held—sometimes for as long as a year—approximately 12.5 million captive Africans were put aboard ships for the Americas. It was the middle leg of a three-part voyage that began and ended in Europe. Europeans carried cargo in exchange for captives in Africa, then exchanged those captives for products in the Americas before returning the ships to Europe.
Aboard ship, the captives were branded with hot irons and held in shackles. They occupied multiple decks with less than five feet of headroom each, 300 to 400 bodies packed into an area with little ventilation and, in some cases, not even enough space to place buckets for human waste. According to a Library of Congress website, A Journey in Chains, “Deaths from suffocation, malnutrition, and disease were routine on the slave deck, as were arbitrary torture and murder by the crew.”
The captives were forced to remain below decks for most of the months-long Middle Passage journey. “The closeness, the filth, and the fear delivered many into madness, and suicide attempts were common,” according to A Journey in Chains, which draws on an account by Olaudah Equiano (known in his lifetime as Gustavus Vassa) who was abducted as an 8-year-old in Africa and sold into slavery in the Caribbean. “Other ships could smell slavers from far away, and Portuguese sailors called them tumbeiros, or floating tombs.”
This is what the Africans who arrived in Oxford two-and-a-half centuries ago on ships such as the Two Sisters endured. Their feet first stepped on American soil near where I stood that day with my sisters, reading an historical marker installed by Oxford’s Water’s Edge in July 2021—one that could only tell a partial tale.
We proceeded to the museum, which opened in February. It examines the history of the slave trade on the Eastern Shore, but also reveals how these battered captives, and their descendants, reclaimed themselves in subsequent decades, turning a place of African mourning into a site for African-American community. The museum “proudly presents Black farmers, professional sailmakers, military figures, musicians, watermen, and crab pickers: The Founding Black Families of America who harnessed knowledge and power and placed it firmly and confidently into the hands of their descendants.”
The museum documents transformation, but it also complicates what it means to be a Founder. For two centuries, enslaved Africans and their descendants made possible the agricultural and maritime commercial development of the region, particularly in the oyster and shipbuilding industries. Black men built and worked aboard the ships, harvested the oysters, made the sails, and rowed the ferry. Black men and women worked in the fields and in the tobacco barns. Black women picked the crabs. The area remained a shipping-and-seafood center dominated by Black watermen until the twentieth century.
History exists in layers: the narrative of suffering memorialized by the UNESCO marker existed alongside one of community-building, and even pleasure. As a native Marylander, I know phrases such as “founding families of Maryland” have been associated almost exclusively with names such as Carroll and Calvert. Those families came from Europe by choice, and they prospered through indentured and enslaved labor.
Charles Carroll, who was born in Annapolis, was the last surviving person who had signed the Declaration of Independence. Believed to be the wealthiest man in the colonies when the American Revolution commenced, he owned more than 1,000 slaves. Charles Calvert, the third Lord Baltimore, was a prominent figure in rendering Black labor perpetually unfree: the Assembly determined that all enslaved people should be held in slavery for life, and even the children of enslaved mothers would be slaves for life.
The Africans those two families enslaved spent two centuries enriching them and their peers, providing the labor on which the state’s economy and a successful American Revolution were built. The experiences of those enslaved people were the experiences of my ancestors and the ancestors of nearly every other Black American.
That slave past is closer, and more personal, than many white Americans understand. A history of prominent Black Southerners of the early and mid-twentieth century includes a short biography of my maternal great-grandfather, Thomas H. Burwell, and how he was freed from slavery after Emancipation along with his father, Jefferson Burwell.
So, for my sisters and I that day in Oxford, the UNESCO marker was a stark reminder of how, in a sense, we got there. We are reminded that unlike other Americans, nearly all Black Americans are cut off from knowledge about many ancestors born more than a few generations ago. Our ancestry, our heritage, derives from what we share with the descendants of those who got to Oxford on ships such as the Two Sisters and The Experiment.
But there is another history too, one equally personal: the history of resilience and what happened after Emancipation. During our visit, my sisters and I learned of Oxford’s Middle Passage history, but my sisters also shared their happy memories of exploring the place as children, and the quilt of family connections they were embedded in. On their trips, they were left in the care of three sisters who operated rental cabins on the site where the Water’s Edge Museum now stands. Oxford was part of an even larger network: those three daughters of the Miller family, born in Virginia, were the sisters of Marci and Malvina’s godmother, Eva Miller Taliaferro, who played a vital role in their upbringing in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Marci and Malvina recalled spending their days riding the ferry and walking past the quaint shops and houses in Oxford, which still has the feel of a place far removed from Baltimore-Washington, and the area’s heavily populated suburbs, less than 90 minutes away. They remembered the home the three sisters shared, that Dorothy Miller Lawson was in charge of the cabins and that Evelyn Miller Webb and Dorothy hosted a beer garden in the evening. Barbara Miller Surles had a hand in both during visits from her own home in Florida.
Marci and Malvina also recalled that they understood, even as children, that the place meant a lot to Black people who lived in and around Oxford, and to those passing through. Public accommodations on the Eastern Shore, like the rest of Maryland, were racially segregated through much of the twentieth century. So those cabins had to have been one of very few options for Black seamen who came ashore around Oxford and needed a place to get a night’s sleep. For decades, Black people who lived nearby could rely on the sisters if they wanted an evening out that included a beer and a good crab cake.
Those memories sit alongside a more recent and formal historical remembrance. Just across the county line in Cambridge, in Dorchester County, the life and legacy of Harriet Tubman is on display. The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park contains woodlands, streams, swamps, farmlands, and open water. The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park houses exhibits that focus on her early years in Maryland and her role as a liberator. The Harriet Tubman Byway, a self-guided driving tour, winds for more than 125 miles through the landscapes and waterscapes of Maryland’s Eastern Shore and then another 98 miles through Delaware. The Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center in downtown Cambridge was founded by community members in the 1980s to preserve her connection to local residents and provide a resource for young people.
What Malvina, Marci, and I saw and experienced in Oxford and Cambridge reminded us of an undeniable truth that must always be told about the journey of Black people in America. It is a truth James Baldwin reasserted in a TV interview with Nikki Giovanni in 1971. “After all, baby, we have survived the roughest game in the history of the world. We really have. No matter what we say against ourselves, no matter what our limits or hang-ups are, we have come through something. And if we can get this far, we can get further. And we got this far by means which no one understands, including you and me.”
We recognize that truth because we know the journey began with the abduction of Africans and the Middle Passage voyage to the Americas, where they would be enslaved, delivering us into struggle and joy.
Mark Allan Williams was a senior editor at Bloomberg Industry and at BNA in the decades before it was acquired by Bloomberg. Prior to that, Mark was a staff writer at the St. Petersburg Times, in the years before it became the Tampa Bay Times. Mark began his career as a staff writer at the Associated Press. Mark’s M.A. is in journalism and public affairs from American University and his B.A. is in sociology from the University of Maryland Baltimore County.