The National Park Service could pay up to $8 million to preserve a former plantation near Annapolis, even though the Whitehall Manor property is already under protection and unlikely to be developed.

Whitehall Manor’s first inhabitants, the Ridout family, enslaved hundreds of Annapolitans — including Alex Haley’s ancestor Kunta Kinte and early real estate entrepreneur Charity Folks. Whitehall patriarch John Ridout hobnobbed with the pre-Revolutionary elite as ships brought human cargo from Gambia to the city’s slave markets.

Now Whitehall is one of four sites slated to become part of the Chesapeake National Recreation Area under legislation introduced last year by U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen and U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, both of Maryland.

“Whitehall offers an opportunity to look at this deep, dark history of America dead in the eye, acknowledge it for what it was, not let the future generations forget,” said Mark Conway, a Baltimore City councilman and vice president of external affairs at the Chesapeake Conservancy.

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Vincent Leggett is shown at Whitehall for a party he hosted to help bring descendants back to the land where their ancestors were enslaved. Many had never been there. (Courtesy of Vincent Leggett / )

But critics say the plan rewards the property’s already wealthy owners for their predecessors’ efforts to obscure the very thing the Park Service says it wants to highlight — the Black community’s contributions to the estate and the humiliations they suffered in the process.

“If you’re just going to have a sign that says, ‘This is Ole Jimmy. He was a slave. Look at him. Oh, by the way, book your wedding’ — that does nothing for me, or for the people descended from Whitehall who now live in public housing,” said William Rowel, a Whitehall descendant and adviser to Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley. “It’s like someone punched you in the face and said, ‘I’m so sorry. Here’s a plaque showing your face after I hit you. Come, everyone, and look at the black eye.’”

Whitehall’s beginnings

Whitehall was built in the mid-18th century for Horatio Sharpe, a governor of Maryland before statehood. Sharpe came to Annapolis from England with his secretary, John Ridout. When Sharpe returned to England in 1769, he entrusted Ridout with the property and deeded it to him upon Sharpe’s death. The Ridouts presided over Whitehall until 1895. A thousand acres at its peak, it is now 115.

Over time, the Ridouts and other owners sold off chunks of Whitehall. Sections of the former plantation became part of Holly Beach Farm, which the Chesapeake Bay Foundation just sold to the state of Maryland for $1. Parts of Holly Beach will be open to the public; Sandy Point State Park, which shares the peninsula with Whitehall and Holly Beach, is already one of the most popular sites in the state to access Chesapeake beachfront.

A popular venue for weddings, Whitehall includes no signage indicating that enslaved people maintained the gardens and caught the oysters served at banquets. The Georgian mansion with hand-painted Chinese wallpaper opened its doors rarely, and then only to garden clubs and historical societies. In 1976, according to the Maryland Historical Trust, occupants used what was once a slave cabin as a carport.

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“I knew there were slaves there, but it was not a topic of conversation. When I was a kid, it never came up,” said Charles Scarlett III, whose father bought Whitehall in 1946 and spent nearly two decades restoring it before moving in. Now living near St. Louis, the 72-year-old businessman said he and other members of the Brandywine Foundation board, which owns Whitehall, want to open the grounds to the public. Activities could include archaeological digs that identify unmarked graves to ensure each has a proper headstone.

Even as he meticulously restored Whitehall’s exterior, the elder Scarlett did not acknowledge the slavery that kept prior generations in the style to which they had become accustomed.

“While Charles Scarlett was an excellent researcher and did his due diligence in attempting an accurate reconstruction of Whitehall, he failed to consider Sharpe’s life beyond his military career and the plantation architectural design as a whole,” Kathleen Clifford of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center wrote in the journal Northeast Historical Geography.

Vincent Leggett, founder and president of Blacks of the Chesapeake, sees few people who look like him doing preservation and archive work. He thinks public access to Whitehall could change that — and that, if it does, its inclusion in the national recreation area will be a worthy endeavor.

“African American history is big business,” he said. “I see various organizations throwing the words around, but I also look to see if the programming matches the jingles. Many times, those stories get sanitized and romanticized, and that affects how the public understands the story.”

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Signs of a troubled past

Mollie Ridout grew up on a slice of the former Whitehall plantation with a father who revered history so much that he became the first director of the Maryland Historical Trust. Like Charlie Scarlett, Mollie Ridout recalls little discussion of the enslaved people at Whitehall.

Raised by his grandparents, Orlando “Lanny” Ridout IV listened to every story and wrote many down. Mollie Ridout remembers her mother, Elisabeth, driving her maid home each night to the Black community across Route 50, where the houses were rundown. She also remembers begging her mother’s maid for a bedtime story and being shocked that she could not read.

When Mollie Ridout was 10, her grandfather went to what was then called the Hospital for the Negro Insane in Crownsville to pick up a man named Lanny Culbert, whose family had him committed there. Her grandfather believed Culbert would be happier doing basic maintenance on the Ridout farm, and he set Culbert up on a rundown homesite on Culbert Road (believed to be a misspelling of “Calvert”).

Lanny Culbert was almost certainly a descendant of the enslaved families at Whitehall. And, although Mollie believes he was far better off with her grandfather than at the former Crownsville hospital, notorious for its severe mistreatment of patients, she recognizes that he was not in a position to assert his needs.

“When I was younger, I had a more benign sense of the system,” she said. “In my research, I’ve found other evidence that was more of a wake-up call for me.”

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Part of that research involved Bernadette Pulley-Pruitt, who got to know Lanny Ridout while working for the Maryland Historical Trust. Lanny had left by the time Pulley-Pruitt started, but his son was an executive there. When Pulley-Pruitt answered his calls, she would talk to Lanny before connecting him to his son. Eventually, the elder Ridout and Pulley-Pruitt determined that she had family buried at Whitehall.

When Lanny Ridout died in 2017, Pulley-Pruitt delivered the eulogy at his memorial service. She wasn’t the only descendant who appreciated Lanny’s friendship. In 2004, Lanny Ridout walked through Annapolis in a reconciliation ceremony with historian Chris Haley, nephew of “Roots” author Alex Haley.

Despite her fondness for Mollie and her father, Pulley-Pruitt agrees with Rowel that preserving the plantation rewards those who always seem to win, at the expense of her community.

“A lot of these white people, they have their inheritances from stuff that we built,” she said. “We lost a lot. We didn’t have the opportunity to have.”

A close-up of the Georgian style house that was the centerpiece of Whitehall. (Courtesy of Charlie Scarlett)

A land already preserved

The windfall for Whitehall will go to the Brandywine Foundation, which continues to invest $200,000 a year just to keep it viable as a wedding and horse-boarding venue.

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The other three sites proposed for the Chesapeake National Recreation Area are the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, south of Annapolis; Burtis House, a waterman’s cottage in Annapolis; and Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, known as Old Point Comfort, where enslaved people started arriving in 1619. Of the sites, only Whitehall is privately owned. The city of Annapolis owns the lighthouse and the cottage; the Park Service manages Fort Monroe with the city of Hampton and a state-sponsored authority.

Whitehall became one of the sites after Charlie Scarlett wrote to Van Hollen. Scarlett subsequently told The Baltimore Sun that going from a question of public access to being part of a national recreation area felt like a play going from an idea to Broadway. The deal, which will take years to finalize as the Park Service works out details, could also bring in Broadway-like numbers.

According to tax records, Whitehall is valued at about $8 million. But the elder Scarlett and his wife, Marie du Pont Levering Scarlett, placed the property in a historic easement decades ago. As a result, real estate professionals in state appraisal documents valued the property at closer to $5 million to $6 million for private sale, though Charlie Scarlett maintains the family has never listed it. The easement prevents Whitehall from being subdivided, though it can be transferred to the National Park Service if the property becomes part of the recreation area. Even without the easement, development would be challenging, because the area is not zoned for public water and sewer.

In interviews and in appraisal documents, real estate agents predicted a limited pool of buyers for an estate where the centerpiece home is a fixer-upper in need of at least $1 million of renovations. The required work includes installing a new roof, repairing plaster where leaks occurred, adding a functioning heating system and updating the plumbing.

Whitehall has turned to public entities for help keeping up the mansion. The Brandywine Foundation received $100,000 from the Maryland Historical Trust for the new roof. According to Charlie Scarlett, the foundation also got a $500,000 earmark from Congress. He is looking for more public sources of money for upkeep.

Many buyers with millions to spend want something turnkey, said Steve Ferrandi of the Land Advisory Group, which sells and buys properties like Whitehall.

“The amount of upkeep to own one of these mansions that really should not be destroyed is just horrific,” he said. “How many multi-gazillionaires do you know who want to do it?”

As a result, owners like the Scarletts sometimes turn to land protection programs, such as the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Program Open Space, which buys habitat threatened by development. In 2014, two Scarlett nephews offered a right of way on the property for hiking trails to Program Open Space. In emails to the Department of Natural Resources, Hal Scarlett lamented his continuing expenses as he waited for an answer. In September 2014, he wrote, “I am also about to write a 35k [tax] check to Maryland from money that would be much better used to do a feasibility study for a plan to use the place.”

In 2015, two appraisers valued the Whitehall parcel at under $6 million because of maintenance issues and its lack of developability. A third, an outlier, put it at $12 million. The appraisers looked at the land before and after the state took out a right of way for hiking trails, a move that one real estate agent told the state would “totally kill that property.”

Department of Natural Resources officials “definitely said no” to Whitehall, in large part because they considered the land already protected, according to emails that Assistant Secretary Kristin Saunders wrote and The Baltimore Banner obtained through a Public Information Act request.

“It is important to reiterate to all of you that we put this through our review process, and it was not an acquisition we recommended pursuing,” Saunders wrote to her staff in 2014. “It is currently protected from development given the deed restrictions … the building itself is in serious need of repair or maintenance, and that is a huge consideration.”

An aerial view shows how close the main home at Whitehall is to the water access. (Courtesy of Charlie Scarlett)

Whitehall’s value lies not just in its history but in its water access, at a premium because more than 95% of the Chesapeake’s shoreline is in private hands.

Conservation groups have long lobbied for more public access. Pam Goddard, senior program director for the Mid-Atlantic Region of the National Parks Conservation Association, has been pushing for a national recreation area for more than a decade. Without the Park Service stepping in, she argued, Whitehall could be lost to a private owner who keeps the estate closed or could become inaccessible because of disrepair.

“When we look at Whitehall, we don’t see a plantation, though that is part of the story,” she said. “We see a huge opportunity to bring people in for outdoor recreational opportunities that they don’t have right now.”

It’s unclear how people would reach Whitehall’s beach, seven miles from Annapolis on a crowded peninsula where neighbors worry about more traffic. Wendy O’Sullivan, superintendent of the National Park Service’s Chesapeake office, declined to comment for this story.

Opening the doors

Last year, after seeing multiple weddings that cost $100,000 each advertised on the Whitehall wedding website, Vincent Leggett hosted a party of his own at Whitehall. He wanted friends in the descendant community to see it. Many had lived within five miles of the plantation most of their lives and had never stepped foot on the property.

“Just to be in that space was very enlightening and empowering to them,” Leggett said.

Members of the Rowel family were there. But not William. He said he has no desire.

“The same people who created the issue are now positioned to benefit from it, and that is a tough pill to swallow,” he said. “The people who benefit from this are not the people who were displaced.”

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