Levi and Oliver: The Howard County History Fear We Don’t Talk About

I started getting calls about the story that got dropped by the Washington Post while I was at the state archives in Annapolis last Saturday as I often do. The story involving Ms. Gilbert, her ancestor Oliver, the prior owner of Richland in Howard County and its new owner had been released early Saturday morning unbeknownst to me. When I got the first call from a fellow county research colleague, we discussed the information conveyed in the story and I won’t relay those thoughts here because my personal thoughts on what has happened and where it seems to be headed aren’t relevant here. I’ve only known Ms. Gilbert since about mid 2022 and have communicated many times with her about many things involving Howard County which I have appreciated. Though I know of the two articles written by Jody and Ms. Gilbert, I’ve never seen Oliver’s unpublished manuscript nor any part of it mentioned in the WaPost story. I’m only aware from reading somewhere (one of the articles likely) that Oliver dictated it to his wife in later years and wanted it to be published. I’m on the list of people who’d like to see it whenever it gets released. Certainly, I’m well aware of the Watkins and the Warfield plantations in the county and I believe we first became acquainted as a result of research I put out last year about Oakdale which was Edwin Warfield’s place. I’ve read that he gave O.C. Gilbert money in what seemed to be a few instances (info from Oliver), and that’s an interesting dynamic to unpack that I wish had been in the WaPost story for the masses to read.

I never met the prior owner of the property called Richland that is the subject of the story and never went to any Juneteenth event held there (that’s in the WaPost story), but I am nevertheless sympathetic to her story of divorce and medical issues that had apparently possibly become debilitating for her causing her to sell what she thought she’d never sell. She shared what she wished to share with the reporter (I’m sure all of her words weren’t used by the reporter), and I have compassion for her circumstances and situation. I’m of the belief that we all have stories we don’t wish to read aloud, and I don’t know if this was one for her or not. I read the story several times to ascertain who did what and when which I’d advise people to do for themselves. There’s a lot to unpack and decipher. Personally, I could ultimately relate to her AND Ms. Gilbert. I wanted to write that here for whatever it’s worth. Being the Executive Director of the history nonprofit that is tasked with compiling the historical facts/data surrounding lynching activity in the county in order to bring the community to a table in which we can do reconciliation activities, I have little choice but to try to see the humanity in both parties in order to better understand the complete situation. I concede that I likely don’t even know the whole situation, since I haven’t spoken with both parties to hear what may not be being said that may be motivating them. It seems as if they were friendly with each other for a while which is important, but I know that friendly doesn’t always mean friends. I sympathize with Ms. Dorsey (the seller) and Ms. Gilbert (her ancestor was enslaved by Watkins family members until he self-liberated in 1848) for different reasons. I don’t know if Ms. Dorsey ever heard any of the history involving the enslaved on the property prior to meeting Jody and Ms. Gilbert, but the article made it sound as if she was receptive if she was consenting to Juneteenth activities at Richland. I’m jealous and wish there was a Juneteenth celebration at the massive Doughoregan Manor plantation where Charles Carroll of Carrollton and his descendants lived and still live, considering how much money (millions) county taxpayers give them! It’s not public either.

I certainly know nothing about the new owner of Richland, Ms. Kim, other than what’s in the article and I want to write here that I welcome her to the county. I think it’s important to be neighborly with folks and respectful of their property and wishes particularly when all of the facts aren’t known and a story like Gilbert’s has dropped via the media. I read from the article that she or her family is the owner of a liquor store in Ellicott City, but I don’t know how long they’ve been a part of the county as a resident. She bought Richland earlier this year, and the article made it clear that she did so in order to get some privacy for her and her children and that something happened in her past that makes her desire privacy even more. In no way would I ever condone intruding on someone’s personal property nor call for the boycott of someone’s place of business and livelihood because they changed their mind about allowing access to the property after giving it more thought. Some of the comments on the Post’s Instagram account contained these thoughts/suggestions, and that gets in the way of reconciliation activities and ultimately the truth as far as I’m concerned. It seems from the article that Ms. Gilbert was able to initially have Ms. Kim agree to her spending the night in her newly purchase house in order to commune with it as the site of where her ancestors were once enslaved. That’s reminiscent of the longtime work of Joseph and the Slave Dwelling Project in which he spends the night at sites that agree to host him, which I love seeing. It’s indeed a powerful way to introduce to the public the sites across the country that have this history that people don’t otherwise know or think about. It requires trust though, and trust is earned particularly with someone’s private property. To be sure.. it is frustrating though, and I can definitely relate.

A great deal of Howard County’s slave history has been torn down and built over such as where Columbia is now located. How many talks I’ve given in which people gasp when I show them how the stories our county nonprofit has created of historical events happened on land that is now modern day Columbia. It also surprises people to hear that “Columbia” was a place on the 1860 map of the county. Much of the history I deal and work with involves things that are “challenging” that people would rather we forget about and “get over it” so that we can all just concentrate on Howard County being “the top X place to live” and be happy that we live here and not “over there” somewhere. I encounter it in many groups that I have given talks to, and I can see that some people are curious but also afraid of the history. We never seem to get around to talking about what exactly they are afraid of. I put this in the category of the time period and chapter that Howard County doesn’t like to read aloud. It’s not the only one (desegration is another), and our nonprofit has been largely quiet recently as the research we’ve been working on has been getting finalized in order to reveal it to the public. It is tedious work requiring onsite visits to archival institutions located in various places in the state and in people’s basement files they’ve kept. Learning from history isn’t something that people should fear, and yes the feelings can be uncomfortable as we learn about man (and woman’s) inhumanity, greed, reneging, selfishness, callousness, pain, suffering, and even evil towards one another. None of those things ceased in the 1800s when Oliver and others from the area self-liberated, nor when Maryland’s new state 1864 constitution finally ended slavery in Howard County. The question of who we really are as a county TODAY is why we look at the events that people who lived and worked here by choice and by force encountered, enabled, tolerated and resisted. How far has our local community come from those days? It’s not a matter as simple as “We don’t have slavery anymore” which was legal at the time. Any look around the country will show you that each state has their unique laws their citizens are subject to, and each local community has a culture that is unique to it. Cultures get created though, and our county has ours. Cultures get modified over time when they are agreed upon by people impacted by them. During the time of slavery, Black people didn’t get to contribute to those conversations and the lawmaking which was instrumental to the creation and perpetuation of local culture. Our nonprofit exclusively researches and pushes out only LOCAL history for this reason. That fear of history does a number though…

Early this year our nonprofit was in a situation involving the ruins and old church foundation for the county’s oldest Black church (discovered by our research team) that was on private property in which the last recorded deed showed Charles E. Miller purchasing the land but not selling it. I was working with the woman who owned the land where the cabin used to sit (is across from the stone ruins) in order to have Phase 1 archaeology done at the site in order to determine if burials were also there since that is known to have frequently happened at historic Black churches. I created a team that included one of the best ground penetrating radar operators working in the state and a Black female PhD-trained archaeologist named Dr. Jones from DC to do the work. It was a coo to get them both. The homeowner had expressed her concern from the start that she was worried about personal liability from someone getting hurt on her property as a result of crossing a shaky foot bridge. It was a valid concern, one I shared, and I worked diligently to have a legal document and waiver created for her (and one for our nonprofit) that was designed to protect her. I left voicemails for her to let her know that I wanted to be sure that I was capturing all of her concerns in having something created, and heard from her that she had medical issues that she was tending to but would reconnect soon. No problem, and there was time to resolve such things and the funding to pay people was more important anyway. No money, no professional services from these top people in the field. I thought she’d be impressed that our nonprofit was able to attract the people to the project that we did. And then our nonprofit won a state grant in order to do the work, which was very exciting. The homeowner had said that she wanted me to promise that anything discovered from the ground would not sit in an office somewhere collecting dust and that I would find ways to showcase the findings to as many people as possible. We were in complete agreement on that, which helps. She had previously told me one day outside of her home that she loved local history, which also helps. She referred me to the rock areas that were further back “in the cut” as they say, advising that I explore it which I did with a colleague. I looked forward to having continued conversations as the project evolved with her, a Black archaeologist who specialized in Black history and the county resident who’d be doing much of the actual digging, about the history finds. It would work in tandem with the state grant our nonprofit won earlier to continue the research into early Black Ellicott City that our research findings made into a book reveal. This Black history of this time period is always celebrated across the state.

When the homeowner had a change of heart for reasons that are unknown to me, there was nothing more that I could do. I honestly don’t even know if she decided, since she didn’t communicate anything to me about changing her mind. I think I was more concerned at the time that something medical may have happened to her when I wasn’t hearing back from her. I had compassion for her as a human who was likely doing the best she could with issues I really knew nothing about. I had continued texting her to at least try to determine what had changed her mind, and even wrote her a letter that I mailed. The last text that I had received from her dated November 13, 2022 after I had conveyed that we got the money to do the work was: “Got your messages. I have a lot going on at the moment, but can call you back this week to discuss. Enjoy the rest of your weekend!” It would be the last communication she gave me. It was weird, and it was hugely disappointing to me, our nonprofit, and the researchers who had spent thousands of hours doing the research on Levi’s house. None of our work involved any notion of “reparations” as the WaPost story alludes to and mentions in the Gilbert story. The work that our nonprofit sponsored with the Black History Research Roundtable initiative was solely calculated to unearth the truth about early Black history in Howard County. Why that threatens people, I will never understand.

Our team of researchers discovered a pre Civil War community of free Black residents living in Ellicott’s Mills, while also discovering that it was a Mulatto man named Levi Gillis who was the likely builder of the log house that had been disassembled from Merryman Street more than forty years ago and eventually reassembled on Main Street for visitors to see (though without any of the Black history that represents the truth about that structure). No one evidently knew that it had been built by a Mulatto man until our team came along and did the work for almost nine months to put it all together. No one in the county had done the dating of the structure to determine that it hadn’t actually existed in the late 1700s and couldn’t possibly represent “European settler” history as has been told to decades of students, visitors and residents by our county’s Rec and Parks folks. The collaboration with county Rec and Parks and our nonprofit (which gets county funding and therefore should be helping government do its work) to put up a temporary display of banners at Thomas Isaac’s Log Cabin for visitors and students with the new Black history uncovered by our researchers was initiated before the summer but has now stalled out with communications having ceased from the county. Why, I cannot say other than I suppose they too have unfortunately changed their mind despite it being public property. Always have to have a Plan B which is underway for us. I thank the organizations and teachers who have come forward to support our efforts to get the story of how researchers (county citizens) discovered the true Black origins of Levi’s log house that had been purchased by Thomas Isaac in 1860 into our county schools. Anyone wanting to help (I can’t promise that someone won’t consider it to be a book that should be banned) can click HERE as we place our order for the next later set of books this week. We’ve planned a book signing with the three authors to celebrate these findings because we can’t (well, we could but we won’t) wait any longer for the county to ready the log property with the research work shared with them to show visitors etc. It was a nice thought that a nonprofit would help the government, but apparently it isn’t really desired. As a friend always says… “hope isn’t a strategy” and she’s right.

I wish Ms. Gilbert luck and safe travels as she embarks upon her trip to retrace Oliver’s steps which I imagine start in Howard County. The WaPost article didn’t mention her upcoming journey which likely involves the land here she wanted to go to, but I imagine that it is common knowledge since it’s on social media. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been spending time researching the Watkins family from Gassaway forward and deciphering exactly where Oliver was when he was in the place that would become Howard County. I’ll be posting that separately because though I understand there were likely space limitations in the WaPost story and the focus was on Ms. Gilbert and her current day story and activities, people should know what the documents reveal and where things were geographically so that they can visualize it. Richland, where Ms. Kim is now owner, is different than Walnut Grove where Gassaway resided until his death in 1840. The 1848 runaway ad for Oliver Kelly contains two names, Dr. Wm. W. Watkins AND Wm. Clark, for people to contact for the reward if they encountered Oliver. Clark was the husband of one of Dr. Watkins’ sisters named Albina. The records reveal some amazing things and of course a story for people to consider, and I’m looking forward to pushing out things to our community. Stay tuned, and watch for Ms. Gilbert who will undoubtedly be ultimately taking people on a journey with her ancestor in spirit to Lee, New Hampshire and places in between just as he travelled.


P.S. Though the Washington Post disabled the comment feature to their story (Baltimore Sun does the same thing with theirs) their Instagram post of the story contains many. It is HERE. Stories always bring thoughts and commentary, and I generally consider them to of course be the rights of people to have them. Many comments are written suggesting things about the land itself such as part of it being given to Gilbert because of the suggestion that there is a burial place there where the enslaved were buried. Are there burials on the land? The story reported that the county knows of none, and I have heard of no investigation utilizing either cadaver dogs or ground penetrating radar which could have determined it which I wish would have been done. I’d imagine that if a distillery etc gets planned there as the article suggests, that information will come out. Then again, there is little to no protections in our county for burial sites. There are burial sites everywhere with marked graves and some with none. There is a Watkins family cemetery on the Walnut Grove plantation: https://historichomeshowardcounty.blogspot.com/2017/07/colonel-gassaway-watkins-and-walnut.html

which is affiliated with the Watkins family, but that’s on different land than Richland. Ground penetrating radar was done there along with Phase 1 archaeology in 2006 due to a development being built. Here’s more information than most people would want about Walnut Grove: https://mht.maryland.gov/secure/medusa/PDF/Howard/HO-18.pdf

Note and FYI: a mannequin of OC Gilbert is inside of the Harriet Tubman Cultural Center, which was originally a surprise to Ms. Gilbert because she apparently hadn’t been consulted when it was created using her materials. Please be sensitive to using the work of others.

Washington Post story link: https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/interactive/2023/richland-farm-slavery-maryland-gilbert/?itid=hp-top-table-main_p001_f002Pleas&fbclid=IwAR3y-NGATW5zAWllMHCbWPjAnQoTjfDHijLQ7Tu-XKc_i3cKmjC3E_52200

* since this post was made, a reader forwarded the following story about the sale listing of the property in which OC Gilbert was mentioned. It’s an article from 2022, and it’s being posted here also: https://news.yahoo.com/hot-property-historic-133-acre-190000355.html