St. Mary’s College of Maryland memorializes the school’s former enslaved population

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

by Woodland Crisfield

The memorial, built to resemble slave quarters, is called “From Absence to Presence” and has the names of enslaved individuals who once toiled the land. (Photo: W. Crisfield.)

On Saturday November 21, St. Mary’s College of Maryland in an online ceremony, unveiled a new memorial which honors the lives of the enslaved who were once captive on the college grounds.

Conversation around a memorial began during the summer of 2016 when an archaeological survey unearthed the remains of a slave quarter. Clay pipes and broken pottery were also found on the site that was planned to house a new stadium and sports facility.

The discovery shocked College president, Tuajuanda Jordan, who told the Washington Post, “The history of St. Mary’s College has always been very forward-thinking and relatively progressive and somehow, in my heart of hearts, I had hoped we had no hand in slavery,” Jordan continued. “When I discovered that, I was sad and depressed.”

Tax records and census data uncovered by Kent Randell, the college’s archivist, showed a troubling past.

Randell's search revealed a list from March 1814 that showed the identities of at least 50 enslaved persons most of whom were housed on the College’s grounds. He also found additional lists of names and ages dating back to 1750, some of which have been engraved on the memorial. The plantation was one of three in and around St Mary’s city.

Perhaps the most shocking discovery by Randell was that between 1750 and 1875 there were at least three or four slave quarters located on the field where college games would be played if a new stadium were built there.

The discoveries prompted President Jordan to have administration, professors, and students discuss erecting a memorial to give visitors a sense of what the men and women who had lived there had endured centuries ago.

Thus came about “From Absence to Presence: The Commemorative to Enslaved Peoples of Southern Maryland.” The memorial was built to resemble slave quarters, with poetry and the names of enslaved individuals that are engraved on shining panels. At night, a light within the memorial projects the names and words out across the surrounding fields for visitors to see what had given rise to the project four years ago.

When President Jordan toured the finished memorial, she was brought to tears at seeing the names on the memorial. This gave her and the school community renewed resolve in the nation’s ongoing struggle for racial equality.