by Melba Brown
In the summer of 2013, I took an on-line art class. The final project was to create an art installation. I decided to create an installation on the grounds of Montpelier in homage to the enslaved people who lived and worked there. The branches represented their ascendent spirits and the colorful fabric swatches represented their freedom. There was an audience of one…my daughter. I used this artistic expression as a teachable moment for her. I wanted her to be ever mindful that even though we enjoy the grounds today, the enslaved people who lived and worked there should be recognized and honored.
In the summer of 2019, I enthusiastically answered the call to volunteer as a Research Assistant for Holly Burnham, Historian/Museum Educator at Montpelier Historic Site. The task was to research the enslaved people at Montpelier Mansion. It was a tremendous opportunity to acknowledge the full scope of people who toiled on the grounds and to learn more about the individuals who were the enslaved and help bring to light their humanity, which undoubtedly was always present.
The task at hand quickly proved to be challenging in a number of ways. First, the legibility of the recorders of that time was sometimes difficult to decipher. Also, I would see a reference in one location and the details would be different in another location. So, accuracy was in question at times as well. To give an example, one enslaved person would be listed as a female in one document and the same person would be listed as a male in a different document. An interesting fact that I learned was, at times, enslaved people would be dressed as the opposite gender in order to garner a higher selling price.
With the encountered hurdles, the most challenging one involved names. For example, on the 1831 inventory list of Nicholas Snowden, there is the name Suky, age 24, price $225.00. I have encountered references to Suck, Suky, Sucky and Suckey. Could any of them be this person, I wondered? I came across a manumission document that listed a Sucky Bacon.
Upon further inspection, I read that this female was 33 years old, a mulatto and freed by Elizabeth W. Snowden in September 1840. Witnessed by Mrs. Chas Hill, September 28, 1843. Elizabeth W. Snowden was married to Nicholas Snowden.
The documents below illustrate a difference in the spelling of her name. This one reads,
Identity of Negro Suckey Bacon by Mrs. Chas Hill, 2 June 1846.
Sucky’s age, the date and names on the documents were proof that this was the same Suky on the 1831 inventory, which listed her age as 24. This was a thrilling moment to connect the dots. Suky had a last name and she was freed. I shared the information with Holly and the staff and they surmised that the name Bacon could possibly have been related to her job, as there was a meat house on the grounds of Montpelier Mansion at that time.
Over the summer, I spent many hours pouring over documents and after each day of research, I had more questions. There were numerous enslaved people with the last name Snowden, some of them listed as mulattos, some enslaved and some listed as born free. It begs the question…did the Snowden men father countless offspring with enslaved women? American History tells us that this possibility could be extremely high. Also, there is a strong presence of African-American Snowden’s in the District of Columbia and Metropolitan Area. Could any of them be related to the Snowden’s of Montpelier? DNA testing could certainly confirm this possibility.
To do this kind of research is both rewarding and at the same time disturbing. It is rewarding to uncover history buried in a deep sea of documents that shed additional light on the enslaved individuals working at Montpelier. It is disturbing to read about slavery experiences in Maryland and the mindset and actions of the slaveowners. To become immersed in documented accounts of brutality and indignities experienced by humans was, at times, too much to fully comprehend. This research experience led me down several roads of exploration as far as the life of enslaved people in Maryland. In addition to the many Snowden’s mentioned in the Maryland Archives and other resources, I encountered other names of slaveowners in Maryland. One slave-owning family, in particular, stood out to me…the Contee family. This family had a tobacco plantation in Prince George’s County. Richard, Charles, William and John Contee are all documented in Maryland’s history.
Contee Road is a main thoroughfare in Laurel, Maryland and it is named after this family.
When I drive on Contee Road, I think of the slaveowner who was notorious for branding the faces of his escaped servants who were apprehended with the letter ‘R’, (perhaps for ‘runaway’) according to an interview with Mr. Dennis Simms in 1939. Dennis Simms was an ex-slave on the Contee Plantation. His entire interview can be read, along with other accounts, in the Work Progress Administration’s publication: In the Words of Ex-Slaves, Maryland Slave Interviews:A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves by Joe H. Mitchell in 1941. Additionally, countless slave advertisements can be seen on-line. Here is just one from John Contee:
I continue to seek out information on Sucky Bacon and the other enslaved people on the inventory lists. If you have never visited Montpelier House Museum, you are missing a great opportunity to see the spaces inhabited by the Snowden family and their enslaved servants. With a renewed sense of telling a more complete story of everyone who passed through this historic site, the experience will be well worth it.