For nearly 150 years, this unique home has told a new story about the African-American experience | At the Smithsonian
âWhen I was a little girl,â says Chanell Kelton, âI used to tell my friends that my house is one of the oldest homes in Maryland.â
In fact, the two-story house where Kelton took his first steps was built around 1875. It was the first house built in what became the Free African-American community of Jonesville in rural Montgomery County, Maryland. Named after its founders Richard and Erasmus Jones, ancestors Kelton affectionately referred to as his “uncles,” the community gave former slaves their first tangible taste of freedom.
âThey are my ancestors. . . . While on vacation in what we would call the old kitchen, we still had our vacation dinners. . . and have the candles on the table, ârecalls Kelton, 32. âJust sitting down and having this meal in the original part of the house was a very spiritual moment. It was as if our ancestors were there with us.
This house, stripped of 140 years of additions and coatings, was acquired in 2009 by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and was reconstructed as part of an exhibition titled âDefend freedom, define freedom: the era of segregation. “ Visitors will be able to stand inside the house, a symbol of pride and opportunity for a family that once worked on a nearby plantation. Smithsonian staff call him the “House of Liberty.”
âWritten on his very bones, there was a giant symbol of freedom, of revolt, of coming out of slavery, of impression on the world which meant standing upright in the era following slavery,â said the conservative. Paul Gardullo, which explains that it is the first object he has ever collected for the museum. âIt has two floors – this is what also stood out to us – the way it stands out and separates itself from what one might consider a slave hut. It was a house, a tangible symbol of reconstruction. It evokes both the aspirations and the limits of this period.
Gardullo says evidence shows Richard and Erasmus Jones, who may have been brothers, were enslaved at the Aachen Plantation in Montgomery County, Md., Where 5,400 people were enslaved were detained before the civil war.
The first plot of the community of Jonesville was purchased by Erasmus in 1866, a year after the end of the war. Gardullo says Richard Jones bought the land where the “Freedom House” stood about nine years later, for $ 135, according to a deed in the records of the Maryland Historical Trust.
Jonesville, now located in the town of Poolesville, was one of many all-black settlements that have sprung up in the area, including Jerusalem and Sugarland, joining other such communities across the country including Rosewood in Florida and Nicodemus in Kansas.
“It was part of a network of black communities emerging from slavery in the post-emancipation era that came together around each other for freedom, security and economic empowerment,” Gardullo explains. âTheir structures reflected the needs of the community to worship as they saw fit, to educate their children in a world that had not educated them before, and to support them by living off the land they now own. “
The Joneses built a variety of houses, and Gardullo says the construction of the house itself and the surrounding buildings help tell how people who had been enslaved could build a house, like other Americans, and had the skills and the means to do so. in a country where they were second-class citizens. Jones-Hall-Sims House, named after the related families who have lived there over the years, is more than the story of one beloved home.
“It’s the demonstration of a way of life that many people in America have somehow forgotten in the stereotypical African American story that many have – a story that sounds like: slavery, sharecropping, urban ghetto, when it’s much more complicated than that, recalls Gardullo. âYou have these communities that were created and that are sustaining and living off the land despite the economic and political challenges and racial violence in some cases. “
The original house is a log building measuring approximately 16 feet by 25 feet, and the way it was built tells historians what the community of Jonesville was like. It was made from hand hewn logs from Maryland that were joined by hand. There was a kitchen – what Kelton calls the “old kitchen” – with a fireplace and a fireplace. It was whitewashed inside and out and had a wooden floor, with a story upstairs and windows on that level as well.
âAll of these things let us know that the community was filled with black artisans who were able to do it, who were adept at creating and building their own intricate structures,â Gardullo explains. âBut having a two-story house where you could look at your land is more than just a sense of pride in owning. It is also a sight to know that if there is somebody coming on the road, and if you had a gun, somebody could be setting up there looking at the earth. “
Montgomery County historian George McDaniel describes Jones-Hall-Sims House as “truly the center of the historic community of Jonesville.” It passed through two generations of the Jones family, was sold to Levin Hall (related to the Jones family by marriage) in 1896, and then passed down to Hall’s descendants, the Simses, in the 1970s. Chanell Kelton says his grandparents, Paul Randolph Sims and Barbara Jean Sims, kept the house in the family until Paul Sims died in 2007. She says it has remained the center of things in town.
“They made sure to keep alive the memory, the spirit, the tradition and the foundation on which the house was built,” says Kelton, who was born in the house and lived there until the age of 13. . âThere’s not a single time I can ever remember that the door was locked. Even in the middle of the night, anyone could come and open the door. You could always have a plate full of food, have a drink, you always had a house to come to. Everyone knew that. “
Kelton remembers the house as a hangout for everyone and says his grandparents told stories about the house’s first inhabitants. It was a place where huge family reunions and pork roasts were held every year, and his grandfather carried on the tradition of black art in the city as a craftsman in the construction field.
She says that many original descendants of neighboring African-American communities, including Jerusalem, still live in the area and that many families are linked in various ways. Kelton says she loved growing up walking in the paths of her ancestors and eating fresh foods from the garden and fruit trees planted near the house.
âIt was just a wonderful experience, being surrounded there in nature, walking in the same woods where my ancestors walked, seeing the same trees, smelling the same grass,â says Kelton. âI know my ancestors and my grandparents are very grateful. I can just see them smile now, so I’m thankful that the Smithsonian is helping to keep the legacy and spirit of Jones-Hall-Sims House alive.
Returning to the Smithsonian, curator Paul Gardullo notes that the house will be one of the first things visitors see when they enter the museum’s main history gallery. Looking at the ramp to the “Freedom House” at the Slave House the museum acquired in South Carolina, he says visitors to the museum will be able to compare what has changed between the two.
âThe real story of the house is long, deep and complex, and cannot be easily told in a museum where you try to use it as a single moment in time. How can we start to have a large artifact like this with such a long and complex history that has life beyond what’s on the museum floor? Said Gardullo. âWe are talking about ‘second day’ projects. It’s an institution we have to grow in – how to work with communities like those that existed in what has become Poolesville to make sure these stories aren’t static.
But for Chanell Kelton, including the house in the museum is the best way to honor her ancestors and their experiences. She calls it humility.
âWe still celebrate the memory of our ancestors. We are no longer in Jonesville but the spirit of this house continues. . . although the house is not at 6 Jonesville Court in Poolesville. It’s something I’m grateful for, âsays Kelton.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture opens on the National Mall on September 24.