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Ceremony honors enslaved persons at Sotterley plantation

The slave cabin located on the grounds of Sotterley plantation, which stands 16 by 18 feet and dates back to about 1830, is just down the hill from the plantation house. It is estimated that within the confines of the tiny cabin, as many as a dozen enslaved persons lived at one time. (CS photos/Andrew Biraj)

With the mournful peal of bells along with song, prayer and speeches, the enslaved people who lived, worked and died at Sotterley plantation in Southern Maryland were remembered in an emotional ceremony Aug. 23.

“This is a remembrance of the tragedy of slavery and a celebration of the people who survived despite everything,” said Jeanne Pirtle, the director of educational programing and partnership at Sotterley.

Located in Hollywood, Maryland, overlooking the Patuxent River, Sotterley dates back to 1717. At one time it was a 7,000-acre St. Mary’s County tobacco plantation that had as many as 93 enslaved persons working there.

Because of its location on the Patuxent River, Sotterley also has the sad distinction of being a location where captured and enslaved Africans first touched American soil. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Slave Route Project has identified Sotterley as one of 31 Middle Passage arrival locations in the United States.

Middle Passage is the term used for the route bringing captured Africans to America, because it was the second part of the three-leg slave trade. Products from Europe were brought to Africa and traded for enslaved persons. They in turn were sent to America and traded for goods that were then sent back to Europe.

Today, Sotterley is open to the public and offers tours of the main house, a slave cabin and other buildings and gardens.

Sandra Coles-Bell, the program director of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach, found her connection to Sotterley, speaks during the Aug. 23 commemoration at Sotterley plantation. Coles-Bell can trace her ancestry back to persons who were enslaved at Sotterley.

The slave cabin – with a dirt floor, a sleeping pallet, a crude ladder leading to a loft and artifacts dating to the time of slavery – is where Sandra Coles-Bell, the program director of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach, found her connection to Sotterley.

“I found out in 2017 that my maternal ancestors had been enslaved at the Sotterley plantation,” she said. “As soon as I found out, I went to the plantation.  It was there that I found out where my Catholic roots had been formed.”

Coles-Bell noted that when she first visited Sotterley, “there was a sign in the slave quarters that explained that although the ‘master’s’ religion was in the Protestant church, the enslaved kept to their Catholic traditions.  I learned from another relative that the priests from St. Ignatius would provide the sacraments to the enslaved.”

“Within that cabin, I found not only my ancestral roots, but my Catholic roots,” she said. “I know myself as a Catholic and as an African-American Catholic.”

Coles-Bell served as mistress of ceremonies for the Aug. 23 commemoration. Several hundred people – including descendants of enslaved persons and owners of the enslaved – attended.

The date – declared by the United Nations as the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition – also marked the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of enslaved Africans on American soil. On Aug. 23, 1619, nearly two dozen Angolans, kidnapped by Portuguese slave traders, were brought to Jamestown, Virginia, thus beginning 250 years of slavery in North America.

Speaking of the importance of memorializing the enslaved and what they endured, Coles-Bell said, “I believe that we have not learned all of the lessons from that time, and need to uncover the brutality in order not to have it seep into the zeitgeist (the prevailing ideas and beliefs of a particular time in history) of the times that we are living in.”

She also lamented that “history has been woefully inadequate and very partial to painting an image of people’s inhumanity to other people.”

The commemoration included the tolling of a bell 29 times, remembering 29 enslaved Africans who died in 1720 aboard the “Generous Jenny,” a slave boat that left Ghana and arrived at Sotterley. The 218 enslaved persons who survived the trek were either purchased outright at the ship or sent to other locations to be sold.

"I know, these bells hurt and excite us because they are part of us," says Coles-Bell.

Sotterley also offers lectures, workshops and other events highlighting the sin of slavery because “you can’t know yourself until you know your past,” Pirtle said.

“We offer a 3-D look at this county’s history and the owners, enslaved and other workers who were here,” she said. “Without the work of slaves, this country would not be what it is today.”

For Nancy Esterling, the executive director of Historic Sotterley, the remembrance ceremony was an opportunity “to acknowledge the past with honesty, courage and respect.”

“We face this often difficult past to honor and remember our enslaved ancestors,” she said. “In the shadow of our nation’s capital, this site echoes the footfall of enslaved Africans who were brought here.”

Rev. Roderick McClanahan, pastor of the First Missionary Baptist Church in nearby Lexington Park, offered a prayer at the commemoration and said he was “grateful to celebrate how (God) preserved our ancestors and kept them.”