EASTON -- It may be January now, but scholars of African-American culture and archaeologists who are hot on the trail of the earliest date of "The Hill" are rallying area history buffs and making July plans.

"The Hill," an area in the east end of town, bordered by East Dover, South, Harrison and Talbot streets and Easton's Rails to Trails, could be the oldest free African-American neighborhood in the United States. At least, that's what the experts are trying to prove.

Right now, an African-American community in New Orleans known as Treme, established in 1816, is claiming that distinction.

Treme celebrated the 200th anniversary of its annexation last year, meaning building would have started occurring there just after 1812. The site has become more well known with the creation of the HBO series "Treme."

Some documents suggest "The Hill" in Easton could have been established as early as 1790.

Last summer, archaeologists from the University of Maryland and Morgan State University conducted their first dig in the neighborhood, in the yard of a home now abandoned and owned by the Housing Authority of the Town of Easton.

Records show the home at 323 South St. was owned by Eliza Skinner Green Dobson, whose nephew by marriage was a Buffalo Soldier in the Spanish-American War and fought in the Battle of San Juan Hill on July 1, 1898.

Among the artifacts collected was a U.S. Army button that could have been from a Buffalo Soldier's jacket, a Swiss Army knife from the same period and several other things.

Excitement was high throughout the east end streets during the dig with 50 to 75 residents stopping by every day. Many older residents remembered playing there as children when the house was occupied.

The dig lasted for two weeks. Then the findings were taken back to the lab at the University of Maryland for the laborious process of analyzing data.

Among the interesting facts revealed, the scholars were happy to learn no major upheavals in the ground of "The Hill" had occurred for hundreds of years, meaning the soil is virtually undisturbed.

"The stratigraphy at the home of the Buffalo Soldier is intact," Dr. Mark Leone said, who is director of the University of Maryland Field School in Urban Historical Archaeology.

"Once you know that, you can pretty much be assured that the archaeology of 'The Hill' is there," he said.

Leone and Assistant Professor Dale Green of Morgan State University, along with a host of graduate students, recently presented their plans to a sell-out capacity crowd during the Lunch and Learn program at the Inn at 202 Dover. Lunch and Learn is part of a series produced the Historical Society of Talbot County.

The scholars are looking to prove the neighborhood was established earlier than 1812 to be earlier than Treme. According to historic dating protocol, they need five separate sources.

Their aim is to make "The Hill" part of Easton's designation in the National Register of Historic Places.

Easton was made part of the National Register in 1978 and again in 2005.

Dale Green held up copies of the 1978 and 2005 applications at Thursday's luncheon, noting there was no mention of "The Hill" in either application.

Green believes that not only does "The Hill" predate Treme, but the area could prove to be the birthplace of African-American Methodism on the Eastern Shore.

Both churches within the area of "The Hill" were erected during a time in the late 1700s and early 1800s when a new offshoot of Methodism had reached the area, founded by free African-Americans living in Philadelphia.

Those churches are the Asbury United Methodist Church on Higgins Street and the Bethel A.M.E. Church on Hanson Street.

To Easton African-Americans, the desire to learn the true age of "The Hill" and have it take its place in the National Register of Historic Places is an emotional one.

Many local African-Americans have traced their roots to Talbot County's slave populations.

Those who trace their ancestors to "The Hill" may get an even more intimate picture of the lives of their relatives, who had made a neighborhood for themselves, living in Easton as free individuals during a time when African-American slavery was the rule.

"It was a comfort zone," Carlene Phoenix said, who is president of Historic Easton Inc.

"They lived somewhere where there was no fear of intimidation," she said.

Phoenix recounted the artifacts that were uncovered during last summer's excavation.

"I was able to touch something that belonged to my great-great-great-granduncle or my great-great-great-grandmother," she said. "That did something to me."

To gain the five sources needed, the scholars expect they will need to carry out at least five archaeological digs, an expensive proposition.

"Funding for archaeology is two-fold," Leone said. "It's what it costs to run a dig. To run a dig for two, three, four weeks, it costs about $35,000 which is not a lot. Running an archaeological laboratory costs a couple of hundred thousand dollars annually."

He added there were additional costs for the graduate students, part of which could be waived from the graduate school if a fellowship could be obtained. All in all, each of the five necessary digs probably will cost about $100,000 each.

"It actually costs a lot more than that," Leone said.

Doctoral student Tracy Jenkins of the University of Maryland has agreed to use "The Hill" as his dissertation, according to Leone.

At Thursday's luncheon, Phoenix closed a $5,000 gap needed to make this summer's dig a reality, but there's more fundraising ahead.

The scholars currently are negotiating to dig at three different properties this summer, believing one of the properties may date back to the 1790s. The digging will begin in mid-July.

So far, most financial support has come from the Bartus Trew Providence Preservation Fund and the Mid-Shore Community Foundation.

Historic Easton Inc. is the fundraising entity in partnership with the Frederick Douglass Honor Society, Morgan State University and the University of Maryland at College Park.

Interested organizations include the Historical Society of Talbot County, East End Neighborhood Association and Eastern Shore Land Conservancy.

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