about the hill community
— The Hill Community —
Easton’s Hill Community has been home to free African Americans since the 1780s, more than 80 years before the Civil War ended in 1865. The history of this community was obscured by time, until researchers began to unravel the mysteries of this extraordinary neighborhood.
Enslaved people on the Eastern Shore were manumitted as early as the late 1600s. This practice accelerated in the years before and after the American Revolution, driven by changing agricultural practices as a shift from tobacco to grain decreased summer labor requirements. Religious convictions among Quakers and Methodists opposing slavery and Revolutionary-era political ideologies of liberty and equality also contributed to this dramatic shift.
Those who were enslaved continued to gain their freedom through the end of the Civil War by various means. Some bought their freedom. Others were freed by their owners or were manumitted at their masters’ deaths. Still others escaped to freedom along routes that eventually formed the Underground Railroad.
These factors allowed The Hill Community to take root and grow here. Free blacks resided throughout early Easton, living side by side with white neighbors and with enslaved people. By the 19th century, the homes of most blacks were clustered along Hanson and Dover streets. After the Civil War, these hardened into segregated enclaves that grew together to form The Hill. Descendants of the original families still live here today.
The lives of the free black families of The Hill are rich and varied, and their stories are woven into the very fabric of the town. These are the people living in the shadows of history who invested their time and their passion into building families, churches, businesses, and civic organizations. You’ll meet many of these courageous African Americans on The Hill Community Walking Tour.
— The Hill Community —
The town of Easton sits at the meeting point of the two main geographical segments of Talbot County — the agricultural lands to the east and the tidal rivers of the Chesapeake Bay to the west. Beginning in 1659, the land that is now Easton began to be settled by Quaker planters. The Talbot County Court moved here from York, a lost town between Easton and Wye Mills, in 1710.
To expand from a crossroads of a few taverns and houses, surveyor John Needles laid out 118 new lots adjoining the already privately owned land. the town itself was established in 1787, and officially named Easton in 1788. the present courthouse on Washington Street, built in 1794, replaced the courthouse structure of 1710.
As the fledgling town grew in the 18th and 19th centuries, Easton Point became a shipping hub for the bounty of both the land and the water. Warehouses and canneries were built throughout Talbot County, providing year-round employment for residents. Port Street connected the town with Easton Point, where ships transported products to the burgeoning cities of Annapolis and Baltimore.
Free black people have been a part of Easton’s social fabric from the very beginning, working as merchants, sailors, craftsmen, preachers, and midwives. In the 18th and most of the 19th century, the town was surrounded by a landscape dominated by small to medium farms with indentured servants, enslaved persons, and free blacks all working side-by-side. Many free black families living in town had relatives and friends who were enslaved. It was not uncommon for free black individuals to purchase the freedom of a spouse or children.
Because of Easton’s role as the political and mercantile hub for the Eastern Shore, blacks here were connected with growing free black communities in other parts of the country, especially Baltimore and Philadelphia. Together they formed a network of resistance to slavery and support of one another. Yet Easton’s jail continued to house runaway enslaved persons, including at one time Frederick Douglass. The Talbot County courts had a conflicted history of upholding the rights of slave owners while respecting the rights of those blacks who had gained their freedom.
Easton’s economic prominence as a shipping center for the regional economy continued into the 20th century. However, the opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1952 eventually sounded the death knell of the steamboats and railroads, causing many of the businesses they supported to decline.
U.S. Route 50 originally bypassed Easton en route to the beach, but the town has grown to encompass both sides of the highway. These developments shifted Easton’s economy from small manufacturing and shipping toward finance, healthcare, and tourism. The Hill Community was largely left out of this economic change, leading almost all of the black-owned businesses located near the railroad to close. Still, the community remains.
— African Methodism —
Today, The Hill Community is home to two historic black Methodist congregations — Asbury United Methodist Church and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Methodism began as a movement within the Church of England and in what became the American Episcopal Church. After the American Revolution, Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury organized an independent American denomination called the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Methodism took hold early in Easton and throughout the Eastern Shore during the era of the American Revolution, when Methodist ministers traveled the region to preach and recruit converts. During this period, Joseph Hartley, one of these itinerant ministers, was imprisoned in the Easton jail for preaching contrary to the Act of Assembly and for failing to take an oath of allegiance to Maryland. A large crowd arrived to hear him preach through his prison bars despite this act of suppression by the establishment. Francis Asbury himself traveled in Talbot County as early as 1777, preaching in the Bayside.
The movement attracted and welcomed people of all walks of life, especially poor whites and both free and enslaved blacks, in ways that the established Anglican Church did not. According to Methodist theology, salvation is open to all who embrace God.
In Talbot County, where Quakerism had been the predominant non-Anglican religion for well over a century, Methodism offered a newer religion with more dynamic programming and preaching than the silent worship practiced by Quakers. Methodism attracted many young congregants locally and welcomed participation from all races. Lively camp meetings, congregational singing, and an emphasis on good works established greater equality in the church by breaking down many existing social hierarchies.
Religious anti-slavery sentiment among Methodists and Quakers overlapped in the late 18th century but diverged by the second quarter of the 19th century. While Maryland Quakers formally forbid slaveholding among members by the time of the American Revolution, many local families had been anti-slavery since the beginnings of Quakerism in the 1650s.
By 1836, American Methodists were backing away from the anti-slavery position. Leaders of the national conference held in Cincinnati that year, worried about alienating Southern slaveowners, announced that Methodists would be permitted to own slaves. Black worshipers had foreseen such divisions forming in prior decades.
Though many in the Methodist Episcopal Church believed in greater equality, African American worshippers continued to face discrimination in leadership opportunities, seating in churches, and full participation. As a result, many left to form their own congregations. Some of these independent African American churches merged into the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) denomination in 1816 to better support one another, while others continued either independently or within the Methodist Episcopal (M.E.) Church.
For example, Asbury Church in Easton remained M.E. at the time and has had a predominantly black congregation since its beginnings in the antebellum period, though it had white ministers in the early years. Varying degrees of independence help black Methodists to worship freely and equally. Methodism remains strong in Easton to this day.