- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2008


State highway officials contacted the Rev. Spencer E. Jackson a few weeks ago with astonishing news: They had found the remnants of a homestead that belonged to his great-great-grandmother, a freed slave.

Less than two miles from his church was a remarkably preserved site, full of artifacts that provide clues to 19th-century black life. Eyeglasses, fragments of dolls and an 1860 Abraham Lincoln campaign medallion are among the discoveries that help tell the story of Melinda Jackson, who bought the property in 1869.

Yesterday, Mr. Jackson and other relatives came to the wooded area tucked between a car dealership and busy Route 29 in Silver Spring for a last look at the site before archeologists finish their dig and the area gets paved over. The Intercounty Connector, a long-planned highway through central Montgomery and northern Prince George’s counties, will cut through the grove of tall tulip poplars, leaving no trace of the former homestead.

Mr. Jackson, pastor of Abyssinia Baptist Church in Silver Spring, said he knew his family had owned property in the area, but never knew its exact location.

“We’re so blessed by God Almighty. I mean we’re only a few hundred feet from Route 29, the autopark is right on the edge. And no one decided to develop this area,” he said. “We so appreciate that somebody had a watchful eye as they were going through construction.”

The discovery was no accident, however. Federal and state regulations require surveys of land where highways are being built to protect just this sort of site from being paved over before first being thoroughly searched for objects of historical value.

Still, it’s rare to come across a site that is so well-preserved, untouched by bulldozers, said Julie Schablitsky, chief of cultural resources at the Maryland State Highway Administration.

The Jackson house was destroyed by fire about 1917. Fire, said Miss Schablitsky, is an archaeologist’s best friend. Unlike homes that have been abandoned, those destroyed by fire contain objects that were actually in use, rather than just trash.

Archaeologists first found the site in 2003 and conducted an initial survey the following year. They realized they needed to keep digging.

More intensive work started in January. That’s when archaeologists found the first evidence that people of African descent had lived there. A quartz crystal the size of a large egg was found buried under the house.

“Crystals …are almost a calling card of people of African descent living here,” Miss Schablitsky said. “Crystals to them, if they buried [them] next to a foundation or under the floorboards, it was a way of protecting the home.”

Other artifacts provide a window onto everyday life in the house. There are fragments of a black baby doll made of painted porcelain. The fragments show the doll’s painted-on eyebrows and pierced ears.

An 1860 campaign medallion reads, “Abraham Lincoln. Free soil, free men.” It featured photographs of Lincoln and his first vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, though they are no longer visible.

Mr. Jackson took the medallion as evidence that the family was “aware of the political situation in America,” he said. “This is not somebody living back in the woods without really knowing what was going on.”

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