Goucher College may seem an unlikely candidate for a deep reckoning with slavery.

Founded by abolitionist-minded Methodists in 1885, the early investors in what was known as the Woman’s College of Baltimore City focused on educating those excluded from higher learning because of race or class. The Rev. John Franklin Goucher and his wife, Mary Fisher Goucher, helped found Morgan State University.

Decades later, Goucher women purposely got themselves arrested after a group of Morgan women protested the “whites only” policy at the Northwood Theatre near campus and ended up in jail. The Goucher women figured their parents wouldn’t stand for them to be in a Baltimore jail, and if the prosecutors let them go, they’d have to let the Black students out, too. They were right.

Yet, the wooded campus on which the 2,200-student college sits was once part of one of the largest plantations in the state of Maryland, where the Ridgely family enslaved hundreds of Black Marylanders. There was no one to relieve them from the harsh conditions they endured; their enslaver, Charles Carnan Ridgely, was also governor of Maryland from 1815 to 1818.

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A carte-de-visite, or calling card photograph, of Nancy Davis and Eliza Ridgeley III. Nancy Davis was enslaved at Hampton, where she cared for the Ridgeley children.
A carte-de-visite, or calling card photograph, of Nancy Davis and Eliza Ridgely III. Nancy Davis was enslaved at Hampton, where she cared for the Ridgely children. (Courtesy of Hampton, National Park Service)

For the past eight years, historians, librarians, archivists, archaeologists, and administrators at the private, liberal arts college have been connecting both students and the larger community with the history of the land, which Goucher trustees purchased in 1921.

On Friday and Saturday, three groups with a stake in the Ridgely plantation reunited for the first of what college leaders hope will be an annual Descendant Engagement Symposium. In addition to Goucher leaders, the event included the acting superintendent of the Hampton National Historic Site, where the main plantation house still sits, and descendants from East Towson, where the first freed slaves from Hampton settled. About 120 people attended: a mix of students, community members, historians, academics, and others who are looking at duplicating Goucher’s efforts at their home institutions.

Goucher President Kent Devereaux said the efforts to reconnect the three parts of the Ridgely lands and tell the descendants’ stories have been a priority since his second day on the job in 2019, when he realized the significance of being 22 miles south of the Mason-Dixon line and that many students and even trustees didn’t know about the connection to the Hampton plantation.

“What I would say to students is, ‘Don’t feel guilt about this. This is not about you. This is about our understanding of our country and who we are and the obligation that we all have,’” said Devereaux, a composer whose father was a historian. “We’re getting involved wherever we can — in the library research, the historical research, focusing on the descendant community, doing what we can with the historic preservation program, and our sustainability work. It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to actually put [into practice] what a college should be good at, right?”

Jim Pratt, a formerly enslaved farm worker, with wheelbarrow in front of the south facade of the Hampton mansion, 1895.
Jim Pratt, a formerly enslaved farm worker, with wheelbarrow in front of the south facade of the Hampton mansion, 1895. (Courtesy of Hampton, National Park Service)

Goucher is the latest college in the region to acknowledge connections to slavery. In 2017, Georgetown University and the Society of Jesus’ Maryland Province apologized for those institutions’ roles in the 1838 sale of more than 270 enslaved Black people. The sale broke up families and fractured relationships, which descendants are still trying to rebuild.

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Loyola University Maryland recently acknowledged it benefitted from the sale and is investigating what to do about that, recently issuing a comprehensive report. All four of those schools are part of the Universities Studying Slavery consortium, which includes about 100 institutions in the United States and Canada.

In 2020, Johns Hopkins University acknowledged that its founder and benefactor, Johns Hopkins, owned slaves until the mid-1800s, contradicting the myth that he was an abolitionist Quaker. Hopkins professor Martha Jones regularly examines the university’s past with her Hard Histories at Hopkins series, which includes blog posts, articles, lectures and events that present different aspects of the school’s problematic benefactors. And the University of Maryland’s 1856 Project seeks to interrogate the history of the College Park campus, which was originally Piscataway tribe land, and its slaveholding founders.

Historians with the National Park Service, of which Hampton is a part, began descendant research about a decade ago, hoping to find a dozen or so families who remained in Towson who could trace their lineage to enslaved ancestors. Instead, researchers found “many, many hundreds,” said Gregory Weidman, Hampton’s chief curator.

“I cannot say strongly enough how rewarding it has been to all of us at Hampton, and to me personally,” Weidman said. “I’ve been the one who has created these elaborate family trees. That represents a great many people. It has been extraordinary, and I think very important work.”

Head waiter Thomas Brown in the Hampton dining room in 1895.
Head waiter Thomas Brown in the Hampton dining room in 1895. (Hampton/Courtesy of Hampton, National Park Service)

When Charles Carnan Ridgely died, Hampton was 25,000 acres, stretching from Timonium to White Marsh, and included 343 enslaved individuals. Ridgeley’s will divided the land and enslaved people among his children. Later, Interstate 695 further cut up the property. The first freed Hampton slaves bought property in East Towson; at one time, 300 Black families, most descendants of those enslaved at Hampton, lived in the community off Pennsylvania Avenue. Among them is Nancy Goldring, president of the Northeast Towson Improvement Association, who can trace her lineage to a Hampton dairy maid.

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Goldring is working with Goucher and the National Park Service to create a land bridge reconnecting the three pieces of Hampton and tell a comprehensive story about the descendants. She is hoping one of the last green spaces in East Towson will be a trailhead for the property, though a developer is currently planning to build an affordable housing complex called Red Maple there. Goldring and her neighbors have been fighting it in court, but recently lost at the appellate court level.

Goldring hopes Goucher’s role in the reconnection of the land will help her small neighborhood become a destination as a park, instead of a dumping ground for many undesirable projects: the Towson bypass, expanded parking at Stanley Black & Decker, and an electrical substation.

“It means everything,” she said of Goucher’s support. “It would be an epic fail if the best we could do is erase this history. It needs to be told. It wants to help us be better people than we were.”

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