To hallow: Goucher students confront the campus’s past
By Molly Englund
How do you reclaim a history that has been ignored? How do you restore a memory lost? In the early 1900s, when Goucher College wanted to move to a larger campus, it looked to what was then the much smaller community of Towson, just outside Baltimore City. In 1921, the college chose Epsom Farm, as it was called, and bought its 421 acres from the Chews, a family whose forebears through marriage had owned the land since 1772.
Written into the deed at the behest of the Chews: racist language about whom the college could allow on the property. And written in to the land are the stories of the enslaved people who lived there, overlooked for the first 100 years of Goucher’s tenure on the property. A new initiative called the Hallowed Ground Project, led by students, alumnae/i, and faculty, is trying to change that.
The Chews inherited the property from the Ridgleys, and both families kept people enslaved on the land throughout its history. While the college first began to move its operations to Towson in 1942 with the completion of Mary Fisher Hall, and had completely transitioned to the campus by 1954, it would still be more than 20 years before the land was researched.
In 1977, R. Kent Lancaster, a Goucher professor, and Susan Cook Lang ’78, one of his students, began to study Epsom’s history by diving into records, maps, and the college’s own archives; they also interviewed descendants of the Chews. Their final report was given to the Maryland Historical Trust and focused primarily on the history of the buildings and ruins on the property, including the somewhat-extant lime kiln and a springhouse.
Interest in the land picked up again when Professor Tina Hirsch Sheller ’74, who was part of the Historical Preservation Program and who now co-directs the Visual and Material Culture Program, recruited two students in 2011 to do an independent study of Epsom. The project grew to include one of Sheller’s historic archaeology courses, and an exhibit to show their findings opened in the library the next year.
Then President José Bowen tapped Assistant Professor James Dator in 2018 to lead a new initiative centered on the people—the Goucher History Project, now called the Hallowed Ground Project. “At the heart of the project,” says Dator, “is trying to tell the story of the enslaved people who labored on the land.” Dator’s academic work focuses on slavery in the Caribbean, so he knew how difficult this research can be.
Dator formed the steering committee, with 10 elected student representatives. One of the first items they wanted to address—the language in the deed: “No part of said land or premises shall ever be leased, sold, transferred to or occupied by any person of the African Race,” read the deed of sale. The language remained in the deed for nearly a century.
In October 2018, by coincidence, Maryland passed a state law allowing for the removal of racist language from such documents. By September 2019, the Goucher College Board of Trustees had voted to strike the language, and the deed was filed with the Baltimore County Circuit Court in October. It was a concrete action with a satisfying result.
Other aspects of the project don’t lend themselves to easy successes. At Epsom, Dator says, the stories of the enslaved people “have been largely silenced in the historical record. And it’s a very challenging task.” It’s a task that Dator insists must be led by the students and their interests. Hannah Lane ’18 agrees. Lane got involved through one of Sheller’s classes, and eventually joined the steering committee. “This isn’t a top-down thing,” she says. “This isn’t something the faculty want to dictate to students, or to shape per their own interests.”
Sophia Lipman ’18 was also one of Sheller’s students who became a student representative on the steering committee, and she says its first goal was to identify its goals—that is, what the students most wanted to see happen. Over the year, the group of alumnae/i, faculty, staff, and students created a number of proposals, and are now focused on how to implement them.
One of the first projects is to digitize the papers of Henry Banning Chew, who was married to one of the Ridgleys and who took control of Epsom in 1829. The papers are stored at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the society’s archivist is currently going through the collection to quote Goucher a price. The research is important for reasons greater than a complete record. “We want to tell those people’s stories,” Dator says, “and use that history to educate the Goucher community about the history of slavery and race, not only on the land but in Maryland and in its role in the broader American story of slavery and race in the United States.”
Lane, Lipman, and Dator agree on the need to make this project integral to the Goucher experience. Lane says they want to change the culture and the historical memory at the college, which Lipman says includes making it part of the academic structure. They envision integrating the results into the curriculum, perhaps as part of the first-year experience. Eventually, summer field schools could conduct archeological work. Everyone wants to see a physical memorial on campus.
“How do we reclaim a history that has in large part been forgotten or ignored?” says Dator. “To me, the name ‘hallowed,’ and making it hallowed, is about restoring a memory. I was so moved by the students’ connection and dedication to doing this project right and in a professional way. It struck me that we’re not just doing a research project. We’re doing a project to instill memories in future generations. It’s about making it hallowed for our community and the broader community, too.”
Historical research can take years, and the next several years of the Hallowed Ground Project will be devoted to it. Some students like Lane and Lipman have already graduated without seeing many results, and that’s part of why both women are staying involved with the committee as alumnae. Lipman now volunteers as the campus education advisor, helping to bring students on to the committee. “My role is to work with students, listen to them, and be an advocate for what they need and what concerns they have regarding the project,” she says.
Lane, who now works at the Maryland Historical Society, says, “A very big concern for me is what the students are feeling and what they want—what they need—for this project, especially Black students,” she says. “I was a Black student working on this project, and there were so many times I was working on my research where I was alone and really overwhelmed or frustrated.”
She went on, “What’s really important about this project, what to me is so urgent about this, is finding a way to memorialize the formerly enslaved Black people who were held in bondage here. People were abused; people died. They were torn away from their families. And they also built—from what I can glean from the record—really strong and resilient relationships. And many of them survived slavery and built lives in Towson and in Baltimore. This project is one way we can speak to, as best we can, the loss and the harm and the survival, and also the legacy of slavery in Maryland and in our personal spaces. And I think Goucher is a personal space for current students and for alums—for me.”
(Photo at top): The lime kiln on Goucher’s campus, photo by R. Kent Lancaster