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New slavery exhibition opens at Rackliffe House this May

An exhibition entitled “The Enslaved at Rackliffe House and Worcester County, MD: A Local Story,” opens to the public at Rackliffe House near Assateague Island National Seashore on May 21.

The exhibition covers topics including The Middle Passage, Growth of the Slave Economy, Resistance to Slavery in Worcester County, Methodism and African-American Life, and the US Colored Troops. It includes images as well as two cases of artifacts, one of which displays pieces discovered during an archaeological dig on the Rackliffe property.

“The full story of Rackliffe House cannot be told without a historically accurate portrayal of all the people who lived here,” said Ed Phillips, Jr., President of Rackliffe House Trust. “2019 is a timely occasion to open this show as it marks 400 years since the first African came to the Americas.”

Public and private records, as well as archaeological evidence, show the vital role that African Americans played in Worcester County. They were the economic engine that helped to create and sustain the wealth of 18th-century estates like this one.

The Rackliffe House: Where history and nature meet

Even if you don’t know precisely what you’re looking for, it is easy enough to find the Rackliffe House as part of a larger exploration of the Assateague Island Visitor Center. The house once was part of a plantation tract that took up much of the surrounding area, but time and fortune weren’t particularly kind to the house, nor to the family that founded it.

Rackliffe House was built in the 1740s by Captain Charles Rackliffe, a wealthy seaside merchant-planter who owned 18 slaves. Their names are listed individually around the top of the exhibition’s walls.

This exhibition covers the time from the colonial period until about 1870It also tells a local story, focusing on Rackliffe and neighboring estates in Worcester County. Many of the names encountered in this exhibition (i.e. Purnell, Jacobs, Ayres, Jones, Derrickson, Henry, and Fassitt) remain in the area today, although the spelling of names varied over the years.  

“The role which African Americans played is told through records that speak for themselves to explain the lives and workways of the enslaved in the Sinepuxent area of Worcester County,” said Dr. Ray Thompson, former director of the Edward Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture and curator of the exhibition.

Thompson and the exhibition committee were assisted in planning the exhibition by historian Dr. Clara Small, Professor Emeritus at Salisbury University, and leaders from the local African-American community including Barbara T. Purnell and Rev. David Briddell and his wife, Jane.

Rackliffe House Trust has planned a series of talks and lectures in relation to the exhibition. Dates and speakers can be found on at www.RackliffeHouse.org.

This exhibition has been financed in part by the Lower Eastern Shore Heritage Council (LESHC), a certified Maryland Heritage Area through Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, whose purpose is to preserve, protect and promote the historical, cultural and natural heritage of Maryland’s Lower Eastern Shore. Additional support was provided by The Humphreys Foundation, Inc., the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore, Worcester County Tourism Department and individual donors

Historic Rackliffe House is located at 11700 Tom Patton Lane behind the Assateague Island National Seashore Visitor Center.  Guided tours are available on Tuesdays and Thursday from 1-4 p.m. from May 21- October 31 and Sundays 1-4 p.m. from June 2 – September 1.  Admission is $5 adults, $3 Active Military, and $2 children.  For more information visit Rackliffe House’s website or email RackliffeHouse@gmail.com.

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