Gathered in the lobby of the Hampton mansion, some standing, others seated on wooden benches with green fabric-covered seats, the eight visitors watch a video on the small television in the corner.
“Hampton unfolds the tapestry of the American experience…” the narrator says.
A woman strides through the door to address the group. She is wearing a long-sleeve, brown wool dress with a full skirt. The white ruffle of a blouse shows slightly around her collar, fastened with a simple black brooch. Her hair is completely covered by a white bonnet, tied at the nape of her neck, which frames her face and contrasts with her dark skin. On her feet are low heeled, lace-up black boots.
“My name is Nancy Davis,” she says. “And today is June 24, 1862.”
This group has come to tour Hampton National Historic Site in Towson, Md. Seven generations of Ridgelys resided here before the estate was designated a national historic site for its architectural significance in 1948. The rooms of the 24,000-square-foot mansion reflect the family’s immense wealth, which was accumulated through farming, shipping, and an ironworks business. Each room is furnished to reflect a different period in the Ridgely family’s history, from 1790 to 1910.
Instead of the usual house tour offered at the site, the group today will learn specifically about the African-American experience at Hampton. “Nancy Davis” is portrayed by Angela Roberts-Burton, a park ranger and tour guide at Hampton. Today, instead of wearing her usual olive-green Park Service uniform, she is dressed in character as Davis, a slave who lived at Hampton and was freed in 1858 but returned to work for the Ridgely family until her death in 1908.
Shining A Light On Slave History
Roberts-Burton’s passion is African-American history. “My mission in life is to tell the trials, tribulations and the triumphs of my ancestors,” she said before the tour. She brings the history of the Hampton mansion to life, sharing the stories of its people to broaden the perspectives of visitors.
Roberts-Burton begins by talking to the group in the waiting area about Davis’s clothing—describing her long undershirt, corset, and corded petticoat—and shares some facts about slavery at Hampton in the 1800s.
Slaves at Hampton labored in a variety of ways. Some, like Nancy Davis, were charged with caring for the family’s children, while others performed manual labor, working on the plantation, or even building the mansion itself. Some were skilled in work such as carpentry or masonry, and others had industrial jobs. While slaves on the property had access to medical care and were provided with clothing, they also were beaten, and many ran away. Mindful of the possibility of a slave insurrection, the Ridgelys took security precautions including a series of bolts on the mansion door and heavy wooden shutters to bar the windows.
Roberts-Burton leads the tour outside and points out the orangery, a replica of the original glass-paneled structure built in the style of a Greek temple.
She makes a point to engage the entire group, and speaks directly to two young girls on the tour with their parents.
“You might not know," she tells them, "people usually didn’t see oranges.” In the early 1800s, she goes on, citrus trees were imported from Florida. Unlike most Maryland residents at that time, the Ridgelys not only had oranges, but pineapples and strawberries, as well.
The next stop is at the icehouse, a grassy mound located several yards from the main house. A steep staircase leads down to the edge of a vast stone pit, 34 feet deep, which was filled with ice from a nearby pond each winter so the Ridgelys could have cool drinks and ice cream during the hot summer months. The family’s slave staff made this possible by hauling blocks of ice from the pond.
Roberts-Burton says most visitors to Hampton expect a house tour to view the furniture and objects and learn about the Ridgely family, and they are not familiar with the slavery aspect of the site’s history.
“Nine out of 10 people want to hear that, whether they know it or not,” she said. “It’s just that 1 percent that comes in and says, ‘I don’t want to hear this, why are you talking about this.’ But in general, slavery is a difficult topic—for black and white people.”
One way she broaches the subject is to include facts about indentured servants from Europe who also worked at Hampton. During the last half of the 18th century, the Ridgelys purchased 300 white indentured servants to work in the family’s ironworks furnace and forge or on the farm. Most served a term of four to seven years, but some were bought and resold for a profit.
“They’re really slaves with a contract,” she explains. “People don’t realize their plight. So I bring people in that way. Because I can feel it when I say I’m going to talk about slavery, I can see the shoulders hunch up to the ears and the jaw tightening or ‘oh my gosh, now she’s going to blame me’ or all that.
"And a lot of people are just flat-out ignorant because they don’t realize that the average white person wasn’t enslaving anyone. Now, I’m not necessarily saying they would not have, if they had the choice, but the average Joe couldn’t afford it. And there were people who were against it from the very beginning. So I’m not really out to attack people, make people feel badly about their heritage, because when it comes down to it, the average person—the average white person—didn’t have anyone in bondage.”
Finding A Park Service Career
Roberts-Burton’s passion for sharing the history of her ancestors began in childhood and was influenced by her father and grandmother. She happened into the National Park Service in 2006, when a recruiter visited Coppin State University, where she was majoring in history.
She began working in the summers at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, although she wasn’t interested in military history, she focused on the people of the site and grew to love the park. Hampton was her first choice, however, and when she had the opportunity to transfer there as a full-time employee in 2009, she took it.
While working for the Park Service, she earned a Master’s degree in art history, art and culture of the African Diaspora from Howard University. After a Park Service training session at the Grand Canyon, she had what she calls her “a-ha moment.” Meeting people who had been with the Park Service for years and seeing their passion for it made her feel at home.
“Like the angelic voices, this was the place for me,” she said.
But working in a natural park didn’t appeal to her. “I’m strictly history, and cultural landscape,” she said. “I’m definitely people-oriented. Even in the Grand Canyon I wanted to know about the indigenous people and what they did there.”
Vince Vaise, the site’s chief of interpretation and Roberts-Burton’s boss, credits her with improving the Hampton tour experience. “She was instrumental in refocusing the interpretive thrust to a more holistic and balanced form of interpretation,” he said. “We now have permanent exhibits in the slave quarters and tenant farmer quarters and the overseer’s house, but it doesn’t replace a live person. If we didn’t have people like Angela, I don’t think those exhibits would be that effective, and I don’t think they would resonate.”
Roberts-Burton works to help other park rangers and volunteers share the perspective of the African-American experience at the Hampton site, but not everyone is comfortable sharing this part of history. “It’s the challenge of getting other people to do this,” she said. “People are afraid to talk about slavery, because it’s not an easy topic to talk about.”
Volunteer Pat Kelly said some tour guides prefer to concentrate on the Ridgely family, some talk about the artifacts and furniture in the house, and some focus on commerce and industry. She most often brings up slavery in the kitchen portion of the house tours she gives, but she acknowledged the Park Service is striving for a broader inclusion of the topic. “Hampton is changing in that they want the African-American aspect to be brought in more,” she said.
A Need For The NPS To Explore Slavery
The National Park Service has been increasing its emphasis on slavery in interpretation since 2000, when Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. introduced language to encourage the discussion of slavery as a cause of the Civil War into the Department of the Interior appropriations bill.
And, in the November 2007 issue of the American Historical Association’s Perspectives, Dwight Pitcaithley, former chief historian of the National Park Service, addressed this initiative in his article, Public Education and the National Park Service: Interpreting the Civil War.
“Conversations about slavery in today's society are contentious precisely because understanding the role slavery played in American history is important to understanding today's society,” he wrote. “If talking about slavery is difficult, we need to talk about it more, not less. Attending to the public's knowledge of slavery is a shared responsibility. Public historical agencies and scholars alike have parts to play in sharing with the public their excitement about the past and the seductive, and never-ending, pursuit of historical truth.”
Even though Roberts-Burton is up front about her perspective at the beginning of each tour, her approach is not always well-received. The Hampton office does get complaints from time to time, and once she had two visitors—both African-American men—walk out of a tour.
Despite the occasional objection, she remains confident that most people do, in the end, appreciate learning about this part of history.
“As long as you’re doing it objectively and also just telling the facts, you shouldn’t really be concerned with that small percentage of the population that does not want to hear it,” she said.
Walt and Kelly Grudi and their daughters, 11-year-old Kayla and 14-year-old Karlee, from Elizabethtown, Penn., were part of the group that took Roberts-Burton’s African-American Experience tour.
“It was really neat to go back in time,” said Walt Grudi. “But also [interesting to learn] the story of the generations, and how they built their wealth on the backs of free labor.”
“How can you be so bigoted and treat people in such an inhumane way and at the same time claim to be Christians,” Kelly Grudi later wrote in an email. “They made their money/wealth on the backs of others. Alarming.”
This is the message Roberts-Burton strives to get across. When giving a tour, she speaks slowly and deliberately, repeating certain facts so people will come away with a few key ideas about slavery and indentured servitude.
“This is American history,” she said. “White or black, unless you were part of that small upper echelon, you all would have been working side by side.”