People, Perspectives and Stories
Even the word “community” can mean different things to different people, and the word is thrown around frequently, but one definition from Merriam-Webster fits here, a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society. So the task is to find that common characteristic. What is that common characteristic, and how do we define the Sotterley Community? There are some people that will give up countless hours of their own time to see that Sotterley is preserved and thrives, some support with their money, some travel here from far away just to see the place, some come here to see where history happened, or to see the natural beauty, or see a really old house. Some have a family connection. Some have come for the educational opportunities, they came here as child, or their parents worked or lived here back in the day. Some people come for a walk, to have a picnic, see the butterflies, the farmer’s market, or to enjoy a special event on site with family or friends. Some come to remember or to honor someone or something, and these memories can be happy, sad, or even tragic, but they still come.
The common characteristic is the sense of place, which defined by the Geography dictionary means, either the intrinsic character of a place, or the meaning people give to it, but, more often, a mixture of both. People in the Sotterley community see the intrinsic value of this place and they give it meaning. This is the commonness.
At Sotterley, you might see a family enjoying a tour of the manor house, a bride getting ready for her wedding the next day, a family pouring libations down by the slave cabin in honor of their enslaved ancestors, school children on a field trip, someone walking through the gardens…. This is the Sotterley Community, and you are welcome to join us.
Evolution from Private Ownership to Public Charity
Sotterley is different from many other historical houses in America – we do not step back in time to one famous person. We interpret history’s continuity through five families and over almost 4 centuries, with special stories to tell. For most of its history, Sotterley has existed as a private residence.
By 1953, the last private owner, Mabel Satterlee Ingalls, had opened the site to the public in partnership with the Society for the Preservation of Maryland Antiquities.
In 1961, she recognized the public’s interest in the Manor House, deeded the property to Sotterley Mansion Foundation, and created a Board of Trustees to help direct policy and management. This was a new direction for Sotterley – to share this beautiful place and all its history with the public and use it for children’s education. Mrs. Ingalls continued working on development to accommodate the public and education for the rest of her life. Her death in 1993 presented a major challenge to the continuance of the Foundation which had no established endowment, limited revenue and mounting restoration needs. In 1996, the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated Sotterley as One of America’s Most Endangered Historic Sites. Research confirmed the significance of this resource and in February 2000 it was designated a National Historic Landmark. Today, Historic Sotterley, Inc., a 501(c)(3) charity, continues its vision to preserve the historic and natural environment and to bring the stories of Sotterley to life, connecting relevance to our lives today.
Evolution from Private Ownership to Public Charity
In Their Own Words
The past has no relevance if there is no future. Historic Sotterley, as a caretaker of the past, must be forward-looking, serving the needs of its community, locally, nationally and globally for each coming generation. We do this by continually examining and listening to the changing needs of the people we serve and adapt to fill those needs, helping to make sense and purpose of what we do and how we do it. This makes the past a tool for gaining perspective and understanding. We use our physical backdrop as the prop where fun, education, enlightenment, positive change and personal growth celebrate heritage and humanity, and improve our world one life at a time. A house is just a house, until you put a family in it. Similarly, a museum is just a museum until you put a family in it.
Historic Sotterley and the Middle Passage
Sotterley knew from the research of Elizabeth Donnan from the 1930’s that Sotterley was involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the early 18th century. However, it was a push in 2010 and 2011, for more research to achieve an inclusive and truthful interpretive story that led to officially connecting Bowles to a specific ship, the Generous Jenny, and documentation of its arrival here in 1720.
Fortunately, at about the same time, Sotterley then made a connection to the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project, Inc. (MPCPMP), a non-profit founded in 2011, with the mission to honor the two million captive Africans who perished during the trans-Atlantic crossing known as the Middle Passage and the ten million who survived to build the Americas. They partner with historical and cultural societies, academic institutions, churches, visitor and tourist bureaus, and community organizations to promote African Diaspora history and culture, especially related to the Middle Passage. Ann Chinn, executive director of MPCPMP and Ann Cobb of Baltimore, paid a visit to Sotterley to review the research. In November 2012, Sotterley held a ceremony honoring those who perished on the middle passage to Sotterley. In 2014, another ceremony was held to place a marker to tell the story of Sotterley’s roll in the middle passage and remember and celebrate ancestors. Sotterley is one of five documented middle passage sites in Maryland and the first to have a marker. Sotterley is open to the public year- round.
Slavery was and is a morally bankrupt economic system. Before and during the very founding of America, this inhumane system was justified by racism and financial gain. Racism permeated the society and laws of the new country. It shaped attitudes and behaviors. Although slavery has now been made illegal in this country, the legacy of slavery in America still permeates our society.
Racism allowed people to brutalize other people, murder them, rip their children away, sell them off, put them in slave ships, starve them, beat them, use them for sex, make them work for no wages, and no freedom of their own. Slaves were not allowed justice or basic human rights. Considered property like the livestock, their suffering was not considered equal to white people’s suffering. Their pain was not considered equal to white people’s pain. Their monetary worth to the owner was based on how hard and fast they could work and compliant behavior. They were villainized and demeaned to justify their treatment. “Kind” and “benevolent,” became skewed words masters would use to define themselves for providing food rations or a scrap of clothing. Dependable and compliant slaves, or slaves with lighter skin, were considered trustworthy and more intelligent. Any joy or faith slaves would steal from life was considered contentment with their enslavement. Free black people also suffered from the same racist laws and practices, and still do.
Even with unspeakable hardship, terror, children and families ripped apart, abuse and fear; many of Sotterley’s enslaved survived this cruel system. Some also took flight and freed themselves from bondage. Some outlived slavery. They not only survived, but thrived culturally and spiritually. This is Sotterley’s story. The story will be told.
Sotterley preserves our buildings and landscape to help us tell the story. We research people from long ago and their descendants so we can tell the story. Historic Sotterley will continue to preserve our heritage and tell the story. It is often a hard and painful story. Sometimes it is a triumphant story. Everyone must learn the story.
Part of this process of healing and reconciliation is learning and accepting the truth about the story. The beginning of Sotterley’s story was built on slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.