Angela Wilson, a Baltimore native, rings the bell at Historic Sotterley on UNESCO’s International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. She traced her lineage to Sotterley Plantation in 2015.
Angela Wilson, a Baltimore native, rings the bell at Historic Sotterley on UNESCO’s International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. She traced her lineage to Sotterley Plantation in 2015.

By Megan Sayles, AFRO Business Writer,
Report for America Corps Member,
msayles@afro.com

Before 2015, Angela Wilson had never heard of Sotterley Plantation

Now a museum known as Historic Sotterley (Sotterley), the tidewater tobacco plantation located in Hollywood, Md. stretched across 7,000 acres at its height. At one point, the grounds held nearly 93 enslaved people. 

Wilson would soon discover that her great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother were among them. 

“Discovering your ancestors makes you see people differently. You go through different emotions. Sometimes you’re fine with it, and sometimes you’re very angry with it,” said Wilson. “Your emotions are kind of back and forth. It’s not something you accept, but it’s something you have to figure out how to deal with.” 

A curious child, Wilson often questioned her parents about their families’ origins, but she was always told that they came from the Eastern Shore. That answer sufficed for her temporarily, but she decided to ask again. 

This time her mother told her she was related to every person in Baltimore. Wilson naturally surmised that the response was an exaggeration, but she would find out later that she had more relatives in the city than she knew. 

After her mother died, Wilson decided to become her family’s historian. She began researching to learn about her lineage. Her first finding? Her great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother worked at Sotterley in St. Mary’s County, Md. after slavery was abolished. 

Wilson contacted the museum’s education director at the time to ask about the relatives and was told that they used to be owned by Anne Stone, the daughter of George Plater who was once an owner of the plantation. 

Since this discovery, Wilson has traced her paternal ancestry to Tudor Hall Plantation, also located in St. Mary’s County. Unearthing her roots has also helped her to find cousins she didn’t know she had. 

Together, they’ve traveled to the former plantation and poured out libations in honor of their ancestors. For Wilson, Sotterley is not just about slavery, it’s about connecting to your family.  Nearly every time she visits the site, she meets a new relative.  

Today, Wilson manages the “Descendants of Historic Sotterley Plantation” group on Facebook. She thinks Sotterley has become a model for other existing plantations because the information it disseminates gives a full and transparent history of the White and Black experience there. 

According to Executive Director Nancy Easterling, genealogist Agnes Kane Callum, a descendant of the plantation, and politician John Hanson Briscoe, a descendant of the plantation’s owners, are to thank for the work Sotterley does today with its Descendants Project and Common Ground Initiative, which have brought together over 200 self-identified descendants. 

Kane Callum and Hanson Briscoe went to media outlets to discuss the importance of restoring Sotterley back when the historic site was in danger of being sold in the 1990s. The pair catalyzed public support and acquired key grants to keep Sotterley in existence. 

“The dynamic that existed between Agnes and John Hanson laid bare what could happen if we just could all get on the same page, and it’s been a challenging road to get here,” said Easterling. “There’s always fear of what can happen if you’re too transparent, but we set our foot on that path, and we’re far from done yet.” 

Jerome Spears, a retired army veteran, is a native Baltimorean who discovered his ancestors were a part of the enslaved population at Sotterley Plantation.

Like Wilson, retired army veteran Jerome Spears traced his maternal lineage back to Sotterley and has since become his family’s historian. 

After watching “Roots,” a miniseries based on Alex Haley’s novel chronicling the history of his ancestors, Spears’ cousin and aunt organized a family gathering in 1979 to ask their grandparents about their origin. 

They told the family that they descended from St. Mary’s County in Southern Maryland, and Spears said for many of his relatives, it was the first time they learned that the state’s boundary extended that far south. 

His aunt recorded the conversation to preserve the family’s oral history. 

Spears did not begin to delve further into his genealogy until almost 30 years later, after both his parents had died. He tracked down ties to the Stephens, Bankens and Spears families, who were enslaved at Sotterley. 

The museum features photographs of some of Spears’ relatives, including a man referred to as Mud Stephens, who is pictured feeding chickens, and James Victor Scriber, who is pictured harvesting tobacco. 

Spears has also traced his father’s lineage to plantations in St. Mary’s County. He descended from the Barnes family, another branch of Wilson’s lineage. 

In 2015, Spears created a manuscript detailing 16 family lines. While he continues to trace his roots, his new mission is to find a niece or nephew to carry on his genealogy work and take over his role of family historian. 

“I feel that getting to the point where you’re at peace with your own understanding about what it took to get you here and the place you’re at is going to help guide you and help you focus as you’re interacting particularly with the younger folks that are coming behind you because they won’t know the history unless you convey it to them,” said Spears.

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