The Revoluntionary College Project
Hendry Highland Garnet

ABOVE - Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882), a leading 19th-century abolitionist and minister, was born in Kent County, Md., not far from Chestertown. His family escaped from slavery to Pennsylvania in 1824. A renowned orator, he was the first African-American clergyman to preach to the United States House of Representatives.

Leslie Meredith earned a degree in history from Washington College in 2006. 

Red SwirlGhost Story

by Leslie Meredith

There are certain ghosts around us. They live in old maps, old books and in the basement of small-town courthouses, stuffed into manila folders. They have vacated their former houses, schools, farms, churches, even their graves as the years irreparably change these places so that they either no longer exist or are so changed that they bear no resemblance to where the ghosts once lived their lives. I know this about ghosts but for some unknown reason I am still compelled to seek out these sites; hoping somehow to find a glimmer of the soul that once paced this same drive, looked out at the river from this same vista, surveyed the planting of summer corn in this same field. There is something miraculous and tragic about tracking down these places. Miraculous because it is amazing to find these links to the remote past in the world around us. Tragic because these would be memorials have often been disregarded and are lost forever.

The alignment on my car is off just enough so that I take the curve by the Kent County Department of Public Works building without having to turn the wheel. I take my hands off the warm leathery plastic and let the front wheels naturally drift just so around the curve. Feeling the slight thrill of knowing that I am performing some small reckless act only adds to my excitement. I ponder the power of coincidence as I resume control of the wheel, exiting the curve. What are the odds that my disdain for speed bumps would produce just the right malfunction in the alignment that would allow me to negotiate this curve perfectly? I am hoping that my luck will hold. I am planning on crossing two creeks, going around another curve, looking to my left and seeing the birthplace of a man I have been tracking down for the past few days.

I squint into the sun and watch shimmers of heat radiate off the fresh black asphalt. It’s very possible that almost two hundred years ago eleven members of a slave family, huddled in a lone wagon, traveled down this same road. Just weeks after the death of their master, they received permission to travel to a family funeral. Soon after they left, they changed the course of their wagon and their lives; they began heading North-East.

In order to find the site of black abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet’s birth, I have to start with his ghosts. The first ghost lives in my own memory. I first learned about Garnet in a history course. Garnet was a member of the back to Africa movement who strongly advocated… Garnet and his family escaped slavery when Garnet was a child. Eventually Garnet became college educated and made his rounds on the speaking circuit, drumming up support for the new nation of Liberia.

As a side note in her lecture, my professor mentioned an intriguing detail. Garnet is an Eastern Shore native, born in Kent County no less. Almost everyday I pass by the Elementary school named in his honor. It’s located just off the edge of my college campus where, even in Garnet’s day, privileged white kids received their higher learning. The humble, well-worn brick building was originally built to provide education for all of the black children in Kent County, from Kindergarten to High School. It is still in use today, and while no longer segregated, still serves a large contingent of black students from the surrounding poorer neighborhoods of Chestertown. One afternoon, walking around the school’s artificially cool halls in the hush of the after school hours, I searched for something, a plaque on the wall, a bulletin board, any mention of the school’s namesake. I found nothing.

I think the significance of the school’s name is also largely lost on the community. In fact I wonder how much, if anything anyone in Kent County knows about this native son. Garnet may be the most famous person to come out of Kent County and there is not much outside of the pages of a few books that would tell you so. On the town lawn there are monuments to the local veterans of every war. Next to the town visitor center there is a statue of some baseball player not even everyone in Chestertown is familiar with. But for Henry Highland Garnet, there is nothing.

The Eastern Shore, small though it may be is the origin of some of the most famous figures in all of Black History. Frederick Douglass was born in Tuckahoe; Harriet Tubman nearby in Denton. Their history has been well documented, and in recent decades efforts have been made to document the physical sites associated with them as well. But where, I wonder are the sites Garnet left behind?

Hours in the library have gleaned a few useful kernels of information that may help me answer that question. Among the most useful is another ghost, Colonel William Spencer. According to several of Garnet’s biographers, Spencer owned Garnet and his family. I loathe to produce the story of Garnet’s legacy in Kent County and have it be in actuality a story about William Spencer. But I fear I will learn at least as much about this man as I will about the man I intended to study.

The first clue I receive about the place of Garnet’s birth is the name of a town which no longer exists; New Market. As it turns out New Market was re-christened Chesterville when the Maryland postal system was standardized. Chesterville as it stands now is too small to necessitate even a break in the fifty-mile an hour pace of the pick ups and tractors that traverse the two farm roads that converge at its center. The lone building remaining from the town’s early days is the Spencer family store. The building has been turned into a house and was moved from its original site in order to avoid the wrecking ball in the seventies. When Garnet knew it, the store was a one-room affair owned by his master’s brother Isaac Spencer Jr. I suspect Garnet’s father, George, who was a trained shoemaker may have worked at the store, but I can’t be sure.

The store is the lone residence in the cluster of four or five houses that make up modern-day Chesterville that isn’t run down and tired looking. Dressed in fresh coats of cream colored paint on the window trim and deep red on the door, it is beautiful. The large lawn is well manicured with a fountain, a gazebo and a fairly large garden. I can almost see a wealthy retiree garden-club member tending the tomato vines and planting impatients.

The store is located about a quarter of a mile from the site of the farm where William Spencer lived. A bachelor farmer, I cannot help but wonder if he and Garnet might be more closely related than it would seem. None of the buildings from Garnet’s time remain at the site. When William Spencer inherited the farm from his father Isaac, it was called Darby. After Spencer’s death in 1822 it was sold to the Clement family, under whose name it appears on the 1877 map of Kent County. Using that 1877 map as my guide I located the site. Route 291 still runs the same course one hundred and thirty years after the map was made. I double check this using creeks, intersections and curves in the road as landmarks.

As close as I can tell, the farm is located directly off 291 on the left hand side between 289 and 290. I brace myself for the worse as I cross the proper number of creeks, turns and intersections. It should be right up ahead, I say to myself. I am firmly in family farm country, but I still fear I will find some ghastly group of single families reaching awkwardly up from the fields like the masts of the first ships approaching the New World. I drive too far, coming to the next intersection past the site of Darby and double back.

On the 1877 map there is only one farm on route 291 between 289 and 290; Darby. Today there is still just one long tree-lined driveway leading to a cluster of neat looking houses and silos. A Hispanic worker is weed-whacking the dandelions that have sprung up along side the gravel drive. A painted wooden sign reads “FELICITY II” in gold lettering, beneath it “A Family Farm – Owings Inc.” I turn down the drive and look frantically around, trying to soak up this place. A curved swoop of green fields blends off to my right. On the left, a smaller straight lined field lies between the driveway and Prickle Pear Creek. The small stream is nothing more than a trickle the color of oxidized copper. William Spencer once operated a mill somewhere a long it, not far from where I drive. A little searching in the brushy woods might even turn up a litter of stray stones or even the hole of a foundation.

I make one loop around the circle at the head of the driveway, staring up at the looming three-story brick house that looks much older than the fifty years I know it has stood there. Beyond it the garages and silos that house the machinery and harvest of the farm glint impressively metallic in the sun. Speaking over the phone with the Owings, I learned that they had no clue about any Spencers, Clements or Garnets and they had no idea how old the house was. I wonder how they acquired this place, probably some sort of family farm acquisition or buy out. I’m not sure whether or not the place looked so well-manicured and clean when Garnet and Spencer lived here. I wonder where the slave cabins must have stood, perhaps where the silos now are.
The Spencer family, at least the section of it I am interested in, is buried among the dappled shade and tall green grass in the cemetery at Shrewsbury Parish Church. I scan attentively through the lacksidasical, sort-of rows of graves that meander through the older sections of the cemetery. I am looking for a grave with a War of 1812 Veteran marker; a bronze colored star inscribed in a wreath stuck into the ground on a long slender pole. It turns out William Spencer, was a Colonel in the 33rd Regiment during the War.

The first tombstone I see inscribed SPENCER is that of Isaac, William’s father. The tombstone is marked by a Revolutionary War Veteran marker. Isaac Spencer was a successful farmer and owned many hundred acres of land in Kent and Queen Anne’s Counties, mostly around the Crumpton area. His wife’s grave lies next to him, marked by a twin tombstone.

To the left of these graves is that of William’s brother, Isaac. Isaac Spencer Jr. signed a deed of manumission for Henny Trusty, Garnet’s mother. After escaping slavery, Garnet’s father George changed the family’s last name from Trusty to Garnet. He renamed his wife Elizabeth, and their daughter Mary became Eliza. It isn’t clear whether or not Henry’s name was changed. There is an angel with curly hair and trumpet carved on the top of Isaac Jr.’s headstone.

William Spencer’s stone lies in front of his parents, it is flat on the ground; a rectangular white pool in the lush green grass around it. No wife by his side, no children surrounding him. The inscription is barely legible. I use my fingers to brush away some of the mossy growth that has crept into the chiseled letters. At first I am not even sure it is his grave despite the tell-tale War of 1812 veteran marker. I study the first row of letters for several moments. Suddenly it becomes clear; “COLONEL WILLIAM SPENCER – Died March 1822.” So this is it. I have exhausted my list of places to search for Garnet’s ghost. It dawns on me that I have little to show for my efforts; no plaque in the school, not a trace left at Darby or in Chesterville.

Kneeling beside the grave of a man I have no particular animosity for, or any real interest in, I again ponder the power of coincidence. The coincidence of birth made William Spencer a wealthy gentlemen farmer. It made Henry Highland Garnet a slave. I suppose in the end we are what we make of our lives. The wind rustles the trees and the air cools noticeably as the sun sinks behind the church building; throwing this side of the graveyard into shadow. There may be no real physical legacy of Garnet in Kent County, but there surely are ghosts; the sort that don’t live in graveyards.




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