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 who opposed slavery contributed to this dramatic shift, as did revolutionary-era political ideals of liberty and equality.
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’ death. 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 black people resided throughout early Easton, living side by side with white neighbors and with enslaved people. By the 19th century, the homes of most black people 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 passions into building families, churches, businesses, and civic organizations. You’ll learn the stories of many of these courageous African Americans on The Hill Community Walking Tour.
Manumission is the act of an owner freeing his or her enslaved people. Emancipation occurred when slavery was abolished.
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 in 1710 from York, a lost town between Easton and Wye Mills.
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 black people 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.
The American Civil War began on April 12, 1861, and ended on May 9, 1865.
Because of Easton’s role as a political and mercantile hub for the Eastern Shore, black people 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 mutual support for 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 also respecting the rights of those black people who had gained their freedom.
Easton’s economic prominence as a shipping center for the regional economy continued into the 20th century. Depression brought steam boating to an end, while construction of modern roads and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1952 sounded the death knell for the railroad. This caused many of the supporting businesses 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.
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.
This movement 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.
Methodism attracted and welcomed people of all walks of life, especially poor whites and both free and enslaved black people, in ways that the established Anglican Church did not. According to Methodist theology, salvation is open to all who embrace God. Lively camp meetings, hymn singing, prayer, fervent preaching, and an emphasis on good works established greater equality in the church by breaking down many existing social hierarchies.
Along with Quakers, 18th century Methodists also took a strong anti-slavery stance that enhanced this denomination’s attractiveness to black people. Some Quaker families at Third Haven Friends Meeting had opposed slavery since the 1650s, and Maryland Quakers officially banned slaveholding among their members by the time of the American Revolution. However, Quakers rarely admitted black worshippers as members, whereas early Methodists welcomed them.
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 slave-owners, announced that Methodists would be permitted to own slaves.
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 black 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 helped black Methodists to worship freely and equally. Methodism remains strong in Easton to this day.
CORNER OF HARRISON STREET AND SOUTH LANE
When you arrive at the corner of Harrison Street and South Lane, stop for a moment and note the church at the end of South Lane. Asbury Methodist Church is one of the landmarks on The Hill, a beacon of freedom for African Americans throughout the centuries. You’ll learn more about this church at Stop 10.
18 TALBOT LANE
In 1794, when James Price purchased Lot 28, there was a wooden dwelling on the property. He erected the brick portion of the house in 1808 on Lot 27 to expand his residence.
CORNER OF SOUTH LANE AND HANSON STREETS
Grace Brooks, a founding member of The Hill Community, lived on Hanson Street just beyond the site of today’s standing water tower in the distance to your left. Though she was born enslaved in 1734, her skills in nursing and midwifery afforded her the opportunity to earn a personal income. In 1788, she bought her freedom, as well as that of her daughter Phebe and her granddaughter Priscilla, for £70. She later purchased her son David for £75 and granddaughter Nancy Walker for a sum of £40. Grace immediately gave them their freedom.
CORNER OF HANSON AND SOUTH STREETS
Look right along South Street to Talbot Lane. This row of houses sits on land once owned by Jeremiah Banning, also known as Jere. He was born a slave and was manumitted at age 21 on January 1, 1801, by the Reverend Joseph Telford of Easton.
IN FRONT OF BETHEL A.M.E. CHURCH
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest A.M.E. congregation on the Eastern Shore, was founded in 1818 when itinerant preacher Rev. Shadrack Bassett spoke from an ox cart nearby, inspiring believers to plant a church here. In 1820, the trustees of Bethel A.M.E. Church bought one acre of land, taking up most of the block.
CORNER OF HANSON AND TALBOT STREETS
Free African American Peregrine “Perry” Sprouse purchased Lot 52 adjacent to the church in 1826 from his fellow trustees of the Bethel A.M.E. Church, and the land remained in his family until the early 1900s. The two houses at the back of the lot facing Thoroughgood Lane were built by Sprouse’s children. His youngest son Frisby served in the First Regiment of the Eastern Shore Colored Militia during the Civil War.
CORNER OF TALBOT AND LOCUST STREETS
You are now entering the heart of the modern-day Hill Community.
Soon after the Civil War ended, the Maryland and Delaware Railroad came to Easton. The arrival of the new rail line in 1869 helped both the town and The Hill Community grow. Newly freed African Americans joined those already here, often taking employment in the factories, canneries, and warehouses supported by the railroad. Others worked in hospitality and construction.
CORNER OF LOCUST AND SOUTH STREETS
Freed in 1822, Robert Bryan came to The Hill Community from Dorchester County. He purchased Lots 104, 105, and 106, where the vacated Masonic Lodge No. 6 was located. These lots span the entire block on your right as you walk from Stop 7 to Stop 8. After Bryan’s death, his widow Caroline divided the lots into parcels and sold them. The proceeds enabled her to retain her home until her death in 1872.
CORNER OF SOUTH AND HIGGINS STREETS
Residents of 323 South Street have a long history of military service. John Green and his wife, Eliza Skinner-Green, purchased this house in 1879 from developer Robert Walker. Green served in the 7th Infantry Division of the U.S. Colored Troops
CORNER OF SOUTH LANE AND HIGGINS STREET
Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in 1836 when black worshippers left Easton’s Ebenezer M.E. Church where they had worshipped along side white church members. The national Methodist Episcopal organization’s slipping support for abolition may have prompted this move. That year, the national M.E. conference in Cincinnati declared it would no longer bar church members from holding slaves, resulting in rising racial tensions within the denomination.
CORNER OF HIGGINS AND DOVER STREETS
Dover Street, a main thoroughfare through the town of Easton from its earliest days, forms the northern boundary of The Hill Community. Free black people made their homes and founded businesses near this intersection before 1800, many decades before the Civil War started.
On Your Way Back
Black people escaping slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries often encountered continued hurdles to their freedom. The Maryland legislature at various times tried to force freed slaves to leave the state and in 1832 took a census of free blacks to facilitate their removal to Liberia.