Somehow, perhaps subconsciously, I always knew I would write about the African American history of the Eastern Shore. We had a summer cottage at Greens Point on the Choptank River and as I would spend a lot of time watching the children swim and play in the water, I’d wonder about the old brick mansion across the river on Jamaica Point. There was something haunting about it. And then too, when we’d take the boat upriver and explore the inlets and creeks, my imagination always took me to a place where I would think what an excellent place to hide among the grasses and marsh if you were a runaway slave.
Years later, the mystery of the mansion became clear. It was owned pre-Civil War by a man named Hughlett who was a shipbuilder and had many slaves. One of them was Josiah Bailey, who, having been beaten badly, decided to run. One night, he “borrowed” a skiff from Hughlett and rowed upriver to Harriet Tubman’s parent’s home at Poplar Neck. He fled north from there. It was as if I always knew it. And I wanted to know more.
Elizabeth was another matter. She owned my farm for five years and appears on an 1852 deed as a “free Negress.” In time, she became more real to me than people I’ve known all my life. She lived in my imagination for 9 years because my farm has remained the same since 1849, and I knew the exact setting of her ownership. It was mine as well. I’ve always seen characters as people who live against the land, who make a life from it, and who struggle to preserve it. It is as if the land itself is a character, and the Eastern Shore has a particularly interesting landscape to say nothing of the wide space that offers plenty of room for thought.