BY LISA WӦLFL
When he was 7 years old, the Rev. Jerome Plummer-Fowler realized that his ancestors had been enslaved. In September, Plummer-Fowler spoke at the fourth annual Echoes of the Enslaved commemoration, held at the Riversdale House Museum this year. His great-great-grandfather Adam Francis Plummer was enslaved at this former plantation in Riverdale.
As part of a Sept. 16 panel of descendants of the enslaved, Plummer-Fowler talked about his great-great-grandfather, who was born into slavery in 1819 and started working for the Calvert family, who owned Riversdale House, when he was 10 years old. In secret, Plummer learned to read and write, and he kept a diary until his death, documenting the births and lives of other enslaved people on the plantation. He managed to earn some money, even while working as a slave, and once he was emancipated, he bought property and built a home for his family.
During the panel discussion, Plummer-Fowler shared the stage with Tina Wyatt, a descendant of Harriet Tubman; Joan Gaither, who creates quilts that document history; and Joe McGill, founder of The Slave Dwelling Project, a nonprofit based in South Carolina. The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission Office of Archaeology hosts Echoes of the Enslaved in partnership with The Slave Dwelling Project to address the lasting legacies of chattel slavery in Prince George’s County, according to Samantha Ferris, Riversdale House Museum’s assistant director.
The panel discussion took place on the museum’s lawn, with the sounds of crickets in the air and the setting sun as a backdrop. Panelists discussed their ancestors’ stories and talked about the importance of studying the past to understand the present. Gaither urged the audience to use their voices to call attention to their ancestors’ history.
Wyatt drew a connection between Black people being silenced in the past and efforts to control the way teachers discuss slavery and racism in schools today. “Now they want to change what you can call racism. How dare you?” she said during the discussion. “How dare you change our story? Our story has to be told by us.”
Ruth Driver, 79, attended the event with her two granddaughters. The retired teacher is working on a memoir to share with her family. “They are interested in knowing about where we come from, how we got there, where we are now,” she said. Her granddaughter Alani Nelson traveled from the District for the event. It was worth it, she said.
According to Riversdale House Museum Director Mara Davis, the lives of enslaved people have routinely been rendered invisible at historic sites for a long time. She told the Hyattsville Life & Times in an interview that the Riversdale House Museum used to focus primarily on the story of the Calvert family, who owned the plantation. Davis said that the staff are now part of a trend among museums nationwide to adopt a more comprehensive and honest approach to presenting the history of slavery in the U.S.
“We are currently changing the perspective of how we collect, document and preserve what we’re doing here at the site,” Davis said.
The Riversdale House Museum’s exhibits now depict scenes of daily life that include members of the Calvert family and the individuals they enslaved. Visitors can view the Calverts’ study, a dining room with leftovers from a dinner party, and the room where the Calvert children were nursed by an unnamed slave. Signs honor the work and lives of the slaves who took care of the premises: Lucie, a chambermaid; Will Scott, a coachman; Sarah, who was most likely a maid.
An 1833 tax assessment accounts for 41 men, women and children who were enslaved by the Calvert family that year.
Plummer-Fowler’s great-great-grandfather, who was enslaved at Riversdale, died in 1905. His story, however, lives on. His daughter, Nellie Arnold Plummer, continued writing in his diary, adding commentary and context to his entries. Thanks to his ancestors, Plummer-Fowler knows his family’s history and recounts it at events like Echoes of the Enslaved. During the discussion at Riversdale House, he called the audience to action: “What has happened in the past, with people being unjustly condemned and hated, can happen very easily again. It is up to every one of us to stop these actions while we can.”