They didn't know his name. They didn't know his family or his friends. But dozens gathered on a rolling farm field near Upper Marlboro on Saturday to remember him, an unknown African American man whose remains namelessly resurfaced after being buried more than 100 years.
Returning the unknown man to the soil was important for Gwendolyn Tabb, an Alexandria resident who came to take part in the reburial service, organized by the Prince George's County Police Department and the Prince George's County Historical Society.
"This person matters. I can't say whether the body was disposed of by the wayside back then, but now it matters that we honor him," said Tabb, emphasizing the importance of learning from history. "If you don't know where you came from, somewhere down along the way, you get lost as to where you're going."
For Bill Greene, forensics investigator with the Prince George's County Police Department, this case began 10 years ago with a report that someone had discovered human remains on the Cool Spring Manor Farm, site of the historic Clagett House, an old plantation house built in the 1830s.
"We're called anytime someone finds potential human remains. We get called a lot," said Greene. "Quite often, they end up not being human."
This was not one of those times.
Upon reviewing the scene, Greene said it became apparent that these were historical bones. Researchers from the Smithsonian Institution got involved. Ground penetrating radar revealed that there were at least 13 other unmarked grave sites in the immediate area. Nearby, the Prince George's Historical Society discovered the foundations of what was likely a slave cabin or freeman's home.
The man stood about 5 feet, 8 inches tall and he ate a diet high in protein. He also had suffered a severe back injury which he had lived with for quite some time.
From examining the teeth, they were able to determine that he smoked a clay pipe. At the time of his death, he was between 25 and 29 years of age.
While the wood coffin was mostly disintegrated, machine produced nails found as part of the coffin helped researchers determine that the man died in the early 20th century.
"During the Civil War, all the nails were hand forged," said Greene. "They stopped hand forging nails well after the civil war."
Taking his age into account, that means this man never knew slavery personally, but he likely lived on or near a former plantation, and endured an economic and political situation which kept former slaves and freemen from improving their lot. Those that did were often met with violent oppression.
Not a Slave, Not Free
The man lived through Maryland's most violent period of racist lynch mob violence, with at least 29 lynchings of African Americans documented by the Maryland State Archives during the reconstruction and post-reconstruction era between 1870 and 1899. At least four (maybe five) of those lynchings took place in Prince George's County, only a few miles from the Clagett plantation in Upper Marlboro.
"Though they were free now, the old plantation owners still found ways to exploit them, and there was still a lot of racism and animosity and everything" said Jennifer Stabler, who coordinates historic preservation for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. "It seems like at some of the sites we have studied, African-Americans who were free prior to emancipation were able to fare a bit better than the freed slaves."
The property where the man's remains were discovered had a long history as a tobacco plantation, one which used slave labor to do business. The Clagett home, an unusual design for the region during the 1830s when it was built, is basically a split level home with a half-submerged basement designed to help cool the house in the summer heat.
According to Stabler, census records show a maximum of 40 enslaved laborers working and living on the property in 1840. By 1850, that number had declined to 35, and by the dawn of the Civil War in 1860, the Census recorded 30 slaves at the plantation.
"We know from agricultural census records which were taken in 1860 that he was primarily growing tobacco on the plantation, but he had a fair number of sheep and hogs and sold quite a bit of wool and ham," said Stabler. "But really, the primary crop was tobacco. That area is some of the best tobacco growing land in the country."
The Civil War and the resulting end of slavery dealt a major economic blow for many plantations across the nation, and it was no different for the Clagett family. According to records from the Maryland State Archives, Clagett took out a $10,000 loan from mortgage against his 297-acre plantation to a James Owens of Anne Arundel County, but was unable to repay the debt. Owens took possession of the property in 1871, but never maintained a residence there, and allowed the Clagetts to remain upon the land.
The land remained in the Owens family through son Edward R. Owens who, in passing, willed the farm in 1917 to his niece, Maria Owens Hill of Hyattsville, who managed the farm until 1947. To this day, the property is used as it was since 1871, as a tenant farm, though the tobacco has since been replaced by cornfields.