When I retired many years ago after 31 years of teaching, I really thought that I had taught my last class. But, this past semester, I found myself once again in the front of a classroom—this time teaching a course at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Towson University.

The “Back Story”

That surprising turn of events happened because I read an article in Smithsonian magazine entitled “Slavery’s Trail of Tears.”

I majored in U.S. History in college. And, I know about the original “trail of tears” when the federal government forcibly removed Indians from the southeast to reservations beyond the Mississippi River. But, before I read that Smithsonian article, I knew nothing about the million slaves that were forcibly relocated in the 19th century.

Why didn’t I know that story? Why didn’t I know about coffles—those trains of slaves, chained together, who were forced to walk more than 1,000 miles from the Chesapeake to the slave markets of the south? Why didn’t I know about Franklin & Armfield, one of the largest slave-trading companies in American history?

A coffle of slaves being marched from Virginia west into Tennessee, c. 1850.

Some months after I read the Smithsonian article, my husband pointed out an item in the New York Times about 272 slaves that were sold in 1838 by the presidents of Georgetown College (what is today Georgetown University).

Those 272 Georgetown slaves were a part of “slavery’s trail of tears.” They were some of the million men, women, and children from Maryland, Virginia, and the rest of the Upper South who were moved to the cotton plantations and sugar cane fields of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

Those articles really bothered me because they described a migration that I knew nothing about. When I realized that a lot of other people of my generation were ignorant of it as well, I set about preparing once again to teach.

Creating A Course

I read probably a hundred books, journals, and primary source documents in preparation for my class. Eventually, I decided that rather than dealing solely with the 19th century internal slave trade, I would focus my class on an area of the country with which I have an intimate connection—Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

I was born on Hoopers Island in southwestern Dorchester County where my family has lived for more than 350 years. Some of my ancestors owned slaves. They treated slaves like property; used slaves as collateral for loans; freed some of their slaves; and, in at least one known case, had a slave run away. Some of my ancestors also sold land to a free black and became his next-door neighbors. That part of my past influenced both the content and the title of my class: “Free Blacks and Slaves on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.”

The Content

harriet tubman

Portrait of abolitionist Harriet Tubman

Classes at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Towson University sessions run for four weeks, with each class lasting one hour, fifteen minutes. I divided my content this way:

  • In the 1st class, “Colonial Maryland to 1750,” I put the Eastern Shore in a bigger framework. That included how slavery began, when slaves and free blacks first appeared in the colony, the delayed settlement of the Eastern Shore, how tobacco and slavery were intertwined, and how laws were passed to regulate slavery.
  • Class 2, “Two Revolutions,” focused on how the Plantation Revolution adversely affected slaves on the Eastern Shore and how after the American Revolution hundreds of those slaves were freed. Freed, but often with terms and contingencies attached to their manumissions.
  • The 3rd class, “Selling South,” was about “slavery’s trail of tears”—why the relocation happened, who the big-name operators were, and what routes were taken from the Eastern Shore to the slave markets in Natchez and New Orleans. It also dealt with how racial prejudice led to a 2-caste system on the Eastern Shore and the laws that were passed to keep free blacks “in their place.” This lesson included the story of Freddie Bailey (better known as Frederick Douglass).
  • Our 4th class dealt with the failed abolition movement, the impact of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and the Underground Railroad. Much of that final class focused on Harriet Tubman, Dorchester County’s most famous runaway slave.

In our classes, we read records from the Maryland General Assembly, wills, deeds, inventories, bills of sale, memoirs, and speeches. We looked at maps and analyzed graphs and statistics.

In each class, my students met people from my past—Henry Hooper, who owned plantations in both Calvert and Dorchester Counties; the 2nd Henry Hooper, whose inventory at his death in 1720 included 12 slaves and a mulatto indentured servant worth £320; Hannah and Jhonah, who were equated with cows and furniture when Matthew Travers sold them to his son-in-law; Polly, who was used as collateral for Elizabeth Travers’s $117 loan; Emory Parker, who freed Nell and her young sons Daniel and Jacob; and, Thomas Bishop, who was not only freed but also given the right to vote.

The Result

While my students in this class learned much about slavery and the treatment of free blacks on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, we didn’t try to answer the biggest question of all. What is it about us that makes it possible for one group of people to destroy the humanity of another?

In 1847, William Wells Brown, a fugitive slave whose freedom had been purchased by a British couple, wrote: “Slavery has never been represented; Slavery never can be represented.” Maybe he meant that the biggest question of all has no answer that we are willing to face.