African Americans

One man’s move from slave to middle class

U. MARYLAND (US) — Excavation of a historic home in Annapolis, Md., is offering clues to how some African Americans were able to adapt to a middle-class lifestyle following the Civil War.

James Holliday—born a slave in 1809 and freed in 1819—was one of the first African Americans to work for the U.S. Naval Academy, serving as a messenger beginning in 1845. He purchased the house in 1850.

Beginning work during the summer of 2010, researchers identified an intact archaeological trove four feet deep at the site and began recovering large numbers of dishes and bottles, both whole and broken, that suggest the Holliday family was well-off, especially after Emancipation in 1865.

“African Americans in Annapolis displayed the outward appearance of conforming to Victorian etiquette by buying and using fancy, up-to-date dishes, but uniquely, only in limited numbers,” says Mark Leone, professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland.

“They bought them in small numbers, perhaps for financial reasons, perhaps to put their own unique stamp on their dining. Their table looked up-to-date, but the dishes did not have a single decorative pattern.”

Leone found a similar approach in other 19th-century Annapolis African-American households, such as the Maynard-Burgess House, excavated in the 1990s. White families do not appear to have set their tables in this manner.

“The absence of matching sets in African-American assemblages in Annapolis is not an indication of African Americans being unaware of or being unable to look middle class,” says archaeology graduate student Kate Deeley.

“Rather, it shows a conscious choice to acquire dishes in small quantities rather than in matching sets.

“Nineteenth century ceramics were marketed in etiquette books and newspapers as sets of complementary dishes. Mass production of these ceramics made them available even to poorer consumers.”

The dishes from the James Holliday House show a wide variety of different decorative techniques and a large number of different dish forms, conforming to the trend among African Americans.

“Over time, the ceramics found at the Holliday House indicate a preference for the more stylish types of pottery, with a transition from creamware, to pearlware, then to whiteware,” Deeley says.

“The Holliday family was aware of the expectations of Victorian society and felt the need to conform, but with smaller numbers of dishes.”

Medicine and mineral water bottles showed that the Holliday family used home remedies for self-medication, which frequently means they did not have access to professional medical care—a pattern in segregated Annapolis.

Artifacts from the Holliday basement include dishes and other glassware. Students and instructors are blogging from the site.

The excavation also reveals clues to the Holliday family’s marital ties to Annapolis’ Filipino community early in the 20th century.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, African Americans and Filipinos faced similar discrimination from the white-dominated city. Many Filipinos came to the United States through the U.S. Navy and settled in port cities, like Annapolis, after completing their service.

More news from the University of Maryland:

Related Articles