(May 23, 2019) The surnames featured in the Rackliffe Plantation House’s newest exhibition, “The Enslaved at Rackliffe House and Worcester County, Maryland: A Local Story” will be familiar to many.
Purnell, Ayers, Fassitt, Derrickson, and Henry, just to name a few.
“Many people in this area have really deep roots in Worcester County,” said Linda Ayers, vice president of the Rackliffe House Trust.
Along with the European settlers and the Native Americans who preceded them, an enslaved African-American population also shaped Worcester County history.
“We also knew that we couldn’t tell the full story of the Rackliffe House unless we included the African-American enslaved population that really was the engine that created and maintained the wealth of plantations like these,” Ayers said. “They were indispensable and involved in every part of life here.”
Officials drew from local newspaper articles, wills and a diary when conducting their research for the exhibition that opened Tuesday, at the museum on Tom Patton Road, off Route 611 in Berlin.
Curator Ray Thompson said he hopes visitors will learn something.
“Our anticipation is that they will recognize that we have told an accurate story based on original records of what life was like here on Rackliffe Plantation and plantations near it during the 17th through 19th centuries,” Thompson said.
Thompson called the plantation a “microcosm,” and said the work done there ranged from agricultural workers to shingle makers to blacksmiths.
“[There was] almost every kind of occupation you can imagine because these plantations were pretty much self-sufficient, and the advantage that we have here that we think is so exciting is we have been able to tell a relatively complete story from both points of view of what life was like here,” Thompson said.
A will of Plantation owner Charles Rackliffe is displayed in the exhibition. Ayers said he owned 18 slaves when he died in 1752.
“The inventory stresses that they are personal property because they were listed here with livestock and crops and tools,” Ayers said.
Aside from the panels of text, a glass display case is featured in the center, and shows various types of pottery.
Aaron Levinthal, a board member for the Rackliffe House Trust, also conducted archeological research in the effort to learn more about their lives.
“Life, labor, family, individuals, and so what we did find was that we got a lot of locations across the years that are specific to African-American life,” Levinthal said. “So it’s not just labor, there’s also family.”
Levinthal said the work has been going on for about 10 years. He also attributed the findings to the fact that the parcel’s site was “pretty intact.” It allowed researchers to learn more about the people who lived on the plantation.
“But here, the archeological site here can make that story go a lot deeper,” Levinthal said.
Tina Busko, executive director for the Rackliffe House Museum, said she hopes it’s an inclusive experience for those who attend.
“We can learn about the people in the past,” Busko said. “We can learn about what happened here in the past and that’s really just a wonderful local story with all the descendants that are still in the area.”
While the exact cost to stage the exhibit isn’t unclear, Ayers expressed her appreciation to several groups, including the Worcester County Tourism Department and the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore.
“We were so fortunate to have the support of many organizations and individual donors that made it possible,” Ayers said.
Busko said the museum has about 21 docents who help educate an average of 30 to 50 visitors per day.
The exhibition runs on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1-4 p.m. until Oct. 31. Admission costs $5 for adults, $3 for active military service members with valid identification, $2 for children ages 4-to-14 years old. Admission is free for children under 4 years old.
Busko also said the Rackliffe House Trust was established in 2006. The home was later restored, and tours began in 2011.
For more information, visit the museum’s website at rackliffehouse.org.