- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2005

With bowed and cracked wooden slat walls embraced tightly by poison ivy and a collapsed roof that reveals crumpled balls of wire fencing inside, the small hut in a rural Prince George’s County field looks more like the chicken coop it once was than a home.

But local historians and planners say the building, hidden until recently in a whorl of brush, may date to the mid-19th century, and may be the one-time home of slaves who worked the surrounding tobacco fields.

It is thought to be the only slave cabin left standing in the county, where thousands of slaves once lived and toiled.

As part of a plan to build 20 upscale homes on the site, a developer has agreed to rebuild the crumbling cottage, known as the Molly Berry Cabin.

Over the next several months, archaeologists will dismantle the building, excavate its foundation in a hunt for artifacts and clues to its occupants, then rebuild it.

C.R. Gibbs, a historian who studies Prince George’s black heritage, said refurbishing the cabin will serve as a reminder of the slaves that helped build the county that today is home to one of the nation’s most affluent black communities.

“There would not be a Prince George’s County without black folk,” he said. “Through this cabin, we can take another step on the road to completing the historical memory.”

The land was once part of a plantation owned in the 18th century by Thomas Brooke, a physician whose 1759 will includes the names of 16 slaves among his list of property.

It later was sold several times, and many owners listed slaves among their holdings. After the Civil War, the building was used to house chickens and was later abandoned.

About 18 months ago, developer Haverford Homes came up with plans to build up to 20 “estate homes” on a 116-acre portion of the tract, each on lots of 5 acres or more, each carrying a price tag in excess of $1 million.

While surveying the land, a couple who lived in the former planter’s house told the company about the cabin, which was enveloped in dense brush and nearly collapsed.

The neighbors, Richard and Gayla Bergren, had discovered the cabin when they bought their 1810 house seven years ago. Their house likely was built by slaves who worked on the plantation.

“An old house is just an old house if you don’t have a sense of how it was built and how people lived around it,” said Mrs. Bergren, who has written a short history of the plantation, its owners and the slaves who lived there.

Haverford Homes hired an architectural firm to study the building, and preliminary excavation uncovered glass, pottery shards, pipes and bones that appeared to predate the Civil War.

Thomas Barrett, a project manager with Greenhorne & O’Mara, the firm excavating and rebuilding the cabin, estimated that between eight and 10 slaves probably lived in the 20-by-16-foot structure.

Other slaves on the plantation may have lived in a small building attached to the nearby planter’s house.

The second story has collapsed, as has the brick chimney that once ran up one side of the cabin. Bumblebees swarm around the front door, where excavators working with trowels and buckets have cleared away a stone front stoop.

All that covers the door opening is a screen of chicken wire.

“We got to it at the very end of its life architecturally,” Mr. Barrett said. “It was amazing that it was still standing.”

The firm plans to rebuild the house as a replica of the original structure, using any boards or other building materials they can salvage from the ruin. The project likely will cost up to $200,000, Mr. Barrett said.

Sevag Balian, president of Haverford Homes, said the rebuilt cabin may be used as a community center.

But he said just having the rudimentary cabin located in the middle of a neighborhood of $1 million homes, most of which likely will be owned by affluent blacks, carries enormous symbolism.

“Here we have African-Americans who were slaves, and now it will be an estate community inhabited predominantly by African-Americans,” he said.

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