Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Gracious Lady

In our local news, a chatelaine of one of the great Maryland homes has recently passed away, Mrs. Mary Tilghman of Wye House. Wye House is the plantation where the author Frederick Douglass was enslaved, as I have written before. Mrs. Tilghman opened her home and her family archives in order to contribute to our knowledge of slave life in America. To quote The Star Democrat:
A gracious lady of Talbot County, Mary Donnell Singer Tilghman, passed away Friday morning at the age of 93.

She died at her home, the Wye House estate. She was the 11th generation owner of Wye House, one of the largest estates in Talbot County, with her family’s ownership stretching back three and a half centuries.
Mrs. Tilghman grew up in Pittsburgh, but spent her summers at Wye House, riding horses, playing in the box garden or enjoying the river. She and her late husband inherited the property in 1993. Since then, Mrs. Tilghman dedicated herself to learning about and preserving the house and the Lloyd family history, including the role of slavery at the plantation.

Edward Lloyd IV built the present Wye House mansion on the site between 1787 and 1792. There is evidence the Lloyds lived there before 1670, and the first Edward Lloyd, an early tobacco planter, was known as the richest man in the state in his time. He died in 1695.

From 1660 until emancipation, Wye House ran on slave labor. Mrs. Tilghman lived in what was known as the “Captain’s House,” a circa-1700 dwelling once occupied by Aaron Anthony, overseer and owner of famed orator, author and abolitionist Frederick Douglass who was brought to the plantation to begin his usefulness as a slave at age 6.

That rich history went hand in hand with the large, beautiful home filled with portraits, letters and priceless antiques, which Mrs. Tilghman painstakingly preserved. She allowed 400 boxes of Lloyd family papers to be archived at the Maryland Historical Society. Those from the past who have visited the plantation included ambassadors, governors, statesmen and celebrities, among them Jefferson Davis, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Frederick Douglass when he was no longer a slave.

Douglass wrote several autobiographies, eloquently describing his experiences as a slave, particularly on the Wye House plantation. His work became famous and influential in its support for abolition. After emancipation, many members of the slave population of Wye House settled nearby, forming the community of Unionville.

About eight years ago, Mrs. Tilghman commissioned Archaeology in Annapolis to study slavery at Wye House through an archaeological dig.

“I have always felt it was a rather brave thing for her to do,” said archaeologist Dr. Mark Leone of the University of Maryland.

“She thought slavery was a wicked institution. She said that to me,” he said.

“She felt that archaeology was a way of making slavery at Wye House a part of African-American knowledge in Talbot County,” he said.

A series of archaeological digs at Wye House have happened every summer since then. They specifically target the area on the plantation known as “the long green,” where slave quarters and slave work areas were located, according to the Douglass autobiography. Along with digging, students researched and reviewed the family papers, helping slave descendants in Unionville also gain information.

“For me, Mrs. Tilghman was a very gracious lady. Without hesitation, she opened her historic home so we could learn more about the history of our ancestors,” said Harriette Lowery of the Frederick Douglass Honor Society.

“I don’t think until Mary Tilghman had come back home anyone had thought about opening the home to the neighbors,” she said.

“Her family records had such detail that it helped many of us in Unionville learn more about our ancestors. It answered a lot of unanswered questions for us.”

“It was remarkable that they had so much history that was recorded and stored. Not many people get to do that. She allowed that to happen.”

Mrs. Tilghman was a strong proponent to have the Frederick Douglass statue erected on the Talbot County Courthouse lawn.

“During one of my visits, I was sitting down talking to her,” President of the Frederick Douglass Honor Society Eric Lowery said. “She was passionate about the project. She was disappointed that it was delayed. She said that she hoped she lived long enough to see the project completed.”

And she did. Lowery recalled looking out and seeing her sitting on the courthouse lawn during the statue’s dedication.

“It was a pleasure to know she lived long enough to see that,” he said.

Mrs. Tilghman was named one of only two honorary members of the Frederick Douglass Honor Society as a descendent of the Douglass story. The organization cited her for bringing history together, promoting healing and public reconciliation.

The Maryland Historical Society named her Marylander of the Year in 2010 for her many contributions in preservation. She commissioned the Maryland Historical Society the cataloging of the massive collection of Lloyd and Tilghman family papers, making them available for the first time to historians and scholars.

“She exemplified unpracticed charity. What I mean by that is she did not have to think twice before giving,” said Dr. Leone. “She inspired generous work because she was so generous,” he said.



May said...

Lovely. I remember that moving passage where Douglass talks about returning in later years to visit the mansion and meet the descendants of the family. I might look it up and quote some of it on the forum.

julygirl said...

In that region of Maryland one is able to step back in time because no large cities or industries have sprung up to destroy or build over the original sites of many grand houses that date back to the early history of America.