OXFORD — The Water’s Edge Museum celebrated the installation of a middle passage marker in Oxford, showing the town and Eastern Shore’s historical place as part of major slave trade routes in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
Several officials and scholars attended the July ceremony, including from the Maryland General Assembly; the governor’s office; Salisbury University; a local Native American tribe; and the embassy of South Africa.
Dozens watched as the grounds of Oxford were blessed during the ceremony to honor enslaved persons brought to the Eastern Shore centuries ago, as well as those who died during the long Atlantic Ocean route.
The museum installed the Middle Passage Port Marker on its own property, but Water’s Edge founder Barbara Paca hopes to eventually move the sign closer to the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry off the Tred Avon, where slaves were brought in and distributed across the colonies.
Ann Cobb, the executive director of the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project, an organization working to install signs marking slave routes worldwide, said the Oxford marker teaches the legacy of slavery — and memorializes the lives lost on the way from Africa to the U.S.
“The Port Marker Project is to honor captive Africans who were part of the transatlantic journey called the Middle Passage,” Cobb said, “to remember the 2 million children and men who died during that ocean crossing and the 12 million who survived.
“It is time, or should I say it is long overdue, that we acknowledge these sacrifices and commemorate their lives,” she added. “They are with us always. They walk with us, they talk with us, they hold our hands, they whisper in our ears, they come to us in our dreams. With this ceremony and marker dedication, we open the door and ask them to join us today.”
The Water’s Edge Museum opened in February, the culmination of a nearly 20-year project for Paca — an art historian, landscape architect and author who has been recognized by the Queen of England for her work.
Paca wished to honor the founding Black families of Maryland on the Eastern Shore, and by opening the Water’s Edge with nearly 200 pieces of portraits, paintings, photographs, artifacts, books and more, she achieved one of her lifelong ambitions.
Paca had also set her sights on the history of the town as a slave route destination. Oxford was a major tobacco port, with four transatlantic ships and 25 intra-American ships delivering slaves until the last known ship docked in 1772.
The Middle Passage Port Marker on the museum grounds displays a 1736 map from Herman Moll, who cartographed the route along the Chesapeake Bay and finally to Oxford. Written information on the route from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which approved an application for the sign, is available for reading next to the historic map.
The nearly two-hour long event was also attended by dozens of town residents and Eastern Shore locals, who came to pay respects to the Middle Passage Port Marker — and to hear the numerous guest speakers from across the nation.
Guests carved out time to visit the museum on the Fourth of July, one of the biggest holidays of the year. The ceremony was timed to celebrate the country’s Black founders on Independence Day.
Professor John Wesley Wright of Salisbury University, accompanied by two drummers, led guests through two historic slave songs, “Dennadon Kanin” and “Hammer Ring,” at the beginning and end of the ceremony. He said he chose the songs carefully in respect and reverence for the event.
First Lady of Maryland Yumi Hogan and Maryland Secretary of State John Wobensmith awarded a citation in honor of the marker and the founding Black families of Maryland, the centerpiece narrative of the Water’s Edge Museum.
“There would be no America as we know it today without their essential role as the builders and sustainers of our country,” Wobensmith said. “It was not just the resilience but the ingenuity and the adaptability of the people of African descent who brought their unique culture and skills to these shores.”
The Moaney-Henrys, who have numerous portraits hung up inside the Water’s Edge, and who also hold leadership positions at the museum, received the citation along with Paca.
Brenda Moaney-Henry teared up after receiving a surprise gift: a portrait of her father as a baby from the late Ruth Starr Rose. Rose painted many of the African-American artwork at the Water’s Edge.
The Middle Passage Port Marker speaks to her ancestors’ ability to overcome great difficulties, Moaney-Henry said in a speech.
“The slave is resilient,” she added. “And that resiliency helped build the Black families of America. And I am very proud and very honored to be here today, to be able to share the Middle Passage Marker.”
The grounds of the museum were blessed by Chief Wolf Mother of the Nause-Waiwash Band of Indians, a tribe of about 300 Native American descendants of the Nanticoke, Choptank and Pocomoke.
Mpho Oliphant, the first secretary of the Embassy of the Republic of South Africa, also attended the Oxford event.
Sen. Adelaide Eckardt, R-Mid-Shore, spoke to the remarkability of Paca in being the first to recognize Oxford as a slave destination and to honor the Black founding families of Maryland.
“I need to say this because God gives each one of us special gifts,” she said. “I think one of Dr. Paca’s gifts is the ability to see in folks, and to be able to research what she needs to — to celebrate where we’ve been and then to know where we’re going.”