In 1850, Prince George’s County had the largest number of enslaved people of any county in Maryland: more than 11,000, out of a total county population of 21,000.

Prince George’s County and Charles County were the only Maryland counties in which more than half of the population was enslaved.

These statistics are on the first panel of a five-panel traveling exhibit, entitled FLEE!: Stories of Flight From Maryland in Black and White, on display on the first floor of College Park city hall this month.

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Photo Courtesy of Adelia McGuire

The Maryland State Archives (MSA) produced the exhibit, as part of a ten-year project on the history of slavery in the state.

According to Christopher Haley, the director of that project, this exhibit seeks to provide recognition and respect to the enslaved communities who lived in Prince George’s County, which now boasts one of the most affluent African American communities in the nation. 

However, statistics, for Haley, are not the point.  

“These panels put names and attributes to persons and events which some may want to dismiss as past and unimportant to anyone living today,” he said. “This exhibit recognizes the positive efforts of abolitionists who fought to free enslaved people as well as slave catchers and traders who did the opposite.” 

One story featured in the exhibit concerns Rev. John Ashton, a Jesuit priest at the White Marsh Church in Prince George’s County, who enslaved 82 people in the year 1790, according to a more detailed biography in the Maryland State Archives. In 1791, Edward Queen, an enslaved man, sued Ashton for assault, battery and false imprisonment, and won in court. In May of 1795, twelve men who had been enslaved on Ashton’s property, all members of Queen’s family, escaped. Other members of the same family then sued successfully for their own freedom in Prince George’s County court, according to information in the Maryland State Archives.

Newspaper clippings, government proclamations, and historical maps and images are incorporated onto the panels.  

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Photo Courtesy of Adelia McGuire

The story of Ben Orme, born in 1794 in Prince George’s County, is on another panel. Orme’s mother was enslaved, and his father was a white man by the name of William Orme. Orme was enslaved on a plantation owned by Tilghman Hilleary. Orme escaped multiple times though he was unsuccessful in his ultimate quest to attain freedom. On the panel, Orme’s story is accompanied by three separate cash reward newspaper postings for the return of Orme to Hilleary. The postings include details regarding the whereabouts of Hillearys residence near Bladensburg, Maryland. 

Maya Davis is the current commissioner of the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconcillation Commission as well as the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture. According to Davis, the history of slavery rooted within the county has directly impacted the local community.  

Speaking of the exhibit’s relevance to the University of Maryland, Davis noted that a “now thriving university was built through the free labor of enslaved men, women, and children, to create a school system that in its history has denied admission to the descendants of formerly enslaved people.”

The University of Maryland was founded in 1856, and did not admit its first Black undergraduate until 1951.

In 1864 all slaves in the state of Maryland were freed through an amendment to the state’s constitution. FLEE! recognizes the unknown fate of numerous fugitives and slaves. Through enslavement, Black families were separated.   

“Every time we present Black History and Culture through exhibitions, programming, or research resources, it allows people to reconnect with their lineage,” Davis said. 

Prior to being displayed in the city hall, FLEE! was located at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore, and the Kennard African American Cultural Heritage Center & Museum in Centerville. After Black History Month, the exhibit will travel to the search room at the Maryland State Archives building in Annapolis. 

The exhibit, located at College Park City Hall, 7401 Baltimore Avenue, is open to the public Monday through Friday and between the hours 8am and 5pm during the month of February.