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Reading 2: Life at Wye Plantation
Frederick Douglass grew up in Talbot County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. When he was about seven years old, he left his grandmother's cabin to live more centrally on the plantation near Wye House. There he encountered life under slavery for the first time. The setup of the house and property was different from a small cabin. The owner of Wye House estate had hundreds of bondsmen on various farms. Each farm had an overseer to help run the plantation, but Aaron Anthony, "the overseer of the overseers," was Douglass' master. In his third autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Douglass described the setting at Wye House plantation, where his master worked for the Lloyd family who owned the plantation:
There was the little red house up the road, occupied by Mr. Seveir, the overseer; a little nearer to my old master's stood a long, low, rough building literally alive with slaves of all ages, sexes, conditions, sizes, and colors. This was called the long quarter. Perched upon a hill east of our house, was a tall dilapidated old brick building, the architectural dimensions of which proclaimed its creation for a different purpose, now occupied by slaves, in a similar manner to the long quarters. Besides these, there were numerous other slave houses and huts, scattered around in the neighborhood, every nook and corner of which, were completely occupied.
Old master's house, a long brick building, plain but substantial, was centrally located, and was an independent establishment. Besides these houses there were barns, stables, store houses, tobacco-houses, blacksmith shops, wheelwright shops, cooper shops; but above all there stood the grandest building my young eyes had ever beheld, called by everyone on the plantation the great house. This was occupied by Col. Lloyd and his family. It was surrounded by numerous and variously shaped out-buildings. There were kitchens, wash-houses, dairies, summer-houses, green-houses, hen-houses, turkey-houses, pigeon-houses, and arbors of many sizes and devices, all neatly painted or whitewashed--interspersed with grand old trees, ornamental and primitive, which afforded delightful shade in summer and imparted to the scene a high degree of stately beauty. The great house itself was a large white wooden building with wings on three sides of it. In front a broad portico (porch) extended the entire length of the building, supported by a long range of columns, which gave to the Colonel's home an air of great dignity and grandeur. It was a treat to my young and gradually opening mind to behold this elaborate exhibition of wealth, power, and beauty.
The carriage entrance to the house was by a large gate, more than a quarter of a mile distant. The intermediate space was a beautiful lawn, very neatly kept and cared for. It was dotted thickly over with trees and flowers. The road or lane from the gate to the great house was richly paved with white pebbles from the beach, and in its course formed a complete circle around the lawn. Not far from the great house were the stately mansions of the dead Lloyds--a place of somber aspect.1
The human environment on the plantation was dominated by slavery. Douglass divided people into three classes: slaves, overseers, and slave owners. All skilled craftsmen were enslaved. Douglass discovered that the slave owner and his representative, the overseer, had the ultimate power. In discussing the environment of the plantation in his autobiography, Douglass wrote:
It was a little nation by itself, having its own language, its own rules, regulations, and customs. The troubles and controversies arising here were not settled by the civil power of the State. The overseer was the important dignitary. He was generally accuser, judge, jury, advocate, and executioner. The criminal was always dumb, and no slave was allowed to testify other than against his brother slave. 2
The owner of the estate owned the African Americans who worked for him as property. He was wealthy as a result of their work, and had control over their fate. He decided if they stayed on the estate or were sold elsewhere. He could break up families when selling his "property." Of the owner of the estate, Douglass wrote in his autobiography:
Mr. Lloyd was, at this time, very rich. His slaves alone, numbering as I have said not less than a thousand, were an immense fortune, and though scarcely a month passed without the sale to the Georgia traders, of one or more lots, there was no apparent diminution in the number of his human stock. The selling of any to the State of Georgia was a sore and mournful event to those left behind, as well as to the victims themselves.3
Questions for Reading 2
1) Why was Wye Plantation significant to Douglass? Which buildings were associated with the enslaved African Americans and which were associated with the slaveholders' private and public space?
2) The owner's dwelling and some outbuildings remain today from Douglass's childhood home. What made the main residence a "Great House"? How was it more than just a house? How does it compare to Douglass's master's house? To the overseer's house?
3) Would you be as impressed with the plantation house if you knew it represented your status as a slave?
Reading 2 was adapted and excerpted from Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882 (London: Christian Age Office, 1882).
1 Frederick Douglass, "A General Survey of the Plantation" in Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882 (London: Christian Age Office, 1882).