On retreat: from the present to the past…and back again

I’ve been spending a few days in the tiny Eastern Shore hamlet of Claiborne, Maryland, once a bustling ferryboat landing and now a place name but no longer a postal address.  That distinction ended decades ago, despite a robust letter-writing campaign (before social media) that enlisted such luminaries as Lindy Claiborne Boggs and Claiborne Pell.

The former, you may recall, inherited the congressional seat of her husband, U.S. Rep. Hale Boggs (D-La.) after his untimely death in a plane crash in Alaska, although she might now be better known as the late mother of NPR and television journalist Cokie Roberts. Pell, of course, was the Rhode Island senator who is responsible for the federal education grants bearing his name. Both descended from William Claiborne, who established the first English colony in 1631 on Kent Island, in what would be Maryland. Unfortunately for him, he lost America’s first civil war, in 1638, and retired to Virginia. Today, Claiborne is his sole legacy in the Land of Pleasant Living.

Yet, here history is very much alive.  It’s not just the Claiborne connection. It’s Maryland Route 33, a state highway “dedicated to Frederick Douglass,” born a slave in this Bay Hundred District before escaping to Baltimore, and then on to freedom and greatness. The Talbot County seat of Easton also memorializes him with a statue on the lawn in front of the courthouse. Nearby is an older statue of the “Talbot Boys” who fought for the Confederacy. Neither the highway dedication nor the memorial statue came without a fight. History, as William Faulkner famously wrote, isn’t dead. It isn’t even past. So here, in quiet, peaceful Claiborne an unreconstructed rebel occasionally flies the Confederate flag, while newer residents, including retirees and second home owners, walk their dogs past my window.

I am here to reflect, yes, but also to write. My host friends Jim and Martha, who acquired the post office-general store in the early ‘80s, stayed to raise two daughters and make a life for themselves as community stalwarts, helping to organize events at the town hall, formerly a United Methodist Church that also now has mail boxes where folks can get their catalogs and bills but not buy stamps or mail packages. My friends’ second floor porch looks out over Eastern Bay and sometimes onto blazing sunsets.

It is a place to become becalmed, to turn down the volume, to turn out the incessant noise emanating from the Western Shore.  Yet, the subject of my work is anything but tranquil and will not allow me to withdraw completely from the maelstrom of modern life. I am writing about another polarized time in our nation’s history and about the people and events leading up to and following the cataclysmic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. It was led of course, by the charismatic John Brown, but in his band of raiders were five African Americans who for too long have been treated as footnotes. Their story is my story.

This is not “fake” history. My book will be neither revisionist nor rosy-colored in its treatment of the past. It will simply be a deep dive into the darker recesses of our shared history that continues to haunt us today.  The hard truth is that there is no easy exit, no escape from confronting the past – or the present.


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