We don’t know their names. It’s likely we never will.
We know other things about them, though. We know that he endured heavy labor for much of his young life and that he was buried with care. We know that she was the mother of at least one little boy and suffered a severe pain in her leg that likely worsened as she got older.
Now, more than 100 years after their deaths, we also know what they looked like.
The Catoctin Furnace Historical Society unveiled facial reconstructions of two people who were once enslaved at the Catoctin Furnace in Thurmont Thursday evening at the Delaplaine Arts Center: a woman who experts estimate was about 35 years old when she died and a boy believed to have been about 15.
The event, “Forged in Iron and Bone: Unveiling Faces of the Enslaved,” was a long time coming. It was originally scheduled to take place last March, but the pandemic prompted the historical society to push the unveiling back by more than a year.
Elizabeth Comer, secretary of the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society, is used to being patient, though — it took her several tries to convince Dr. Doug Owsley, lead anthropologist at the Smithsonian, to consider a re-analysis of the African-American remains found near the old furnace site in the late 1970s.
“These things take time, and they’re worth waiting for,” she said, smiling. “Here we are tonight, and it has been a wonderful, wonderful journey. And it’s not over.”
It was an emotional evening. It began with a moment of silence for David Key, the longtime president of Frederick’s African American Resources, Cultural and Heritage Society who died suddenly last week. His presence emanated throughout the night, with many speakers paying homage to his passion for recording the history of African-Americans in the county.
Later, ancestral master drummer Joseph Ngwa beat a djembe drum as he weaved his way through the packed room. He asked everybody to place a hand over their heart — did they feel it beating? The drum, he told them, was an external vibration of their heartbeat. He kept beating as Elayne Bond Hyman read a poem from her collection, “Catoctin SlaveSpeak.” Some in the audience cried as Hyman told the story of an enslaved child coping with the death of her mother. As she spoke from the child’s perspective, Hyman’s face contorted in expressions of grief, pain and sadness.
“This is a very painful, excruciatingly painful history,” she said. “Those of you who have white skin and straight hair or come from Europe, you’re ashamed and embarrassed by this story. And those of us who have dark skin and curly hair, wide noses and big lips, we’re in denial. We don’t want to know because it hurts so bad.”
Comer, an archeologist, recalled her own history with the Catoctin Furnace community. She grew up on a farm near the village where the furnace is located and remembers her childhood in the 1960s as one that was filled with village festivals and frequent interactions with the people who lived there — all of whom were white. For much of her early years, she said, everyone believed the village had an “unchanged European heritage” from the time of the revolution.
But that perception was shattered in 1979, when the construction of U.S. 15 unearthed a cemetery just outside the Catoctin Furnace, which had previously been lost to history, Comer said. Although the site was initially thought by residents to be an “Indian burial ground,” the skeletal remains were soon identified to be from African-Americans who had worked at the furnace.
Today, the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society is continuing to work toward expanding understanding of the role that Africans played in the area’s iron industry with the goal of “providing an avenue for reparative heritage to facilitate social justice, economic opportunity and vindication,” Comer said.
“The effects of enslavement on the African-American population in the United States have been intergenerational, and reversing them will be as well,” she said. “A growing literature makes the moral, historical, legal and economic arguments for Black reparations.”
After discovering the remains, the Maryland State Highway Administration hired a team of professional archaeologists, who ultimately excavated 35 bodies. Over the past four decades, these bodies have been carefully stored in the Smithsonian, where they’ve been studied off-and-on by a series of scientists. But thanks to advances in the field of forensic anthropology and genetics, Owsley said he and his colleagues were able to learn more from the remains than their predecessors were able to.
As Kari Bruwelheide, another Smithsonian anthropologist, later explained, they were able to use DNA analysis to determine the sex of the infant buried above the enslaved woman and confirm that she was his mother.
By examining the bones of the teenage boy’s back — which indicated they’d endured incredible stress — Bruwelheide said researchers were also able to determine that he was frequently forced to perform heavy labor for much of his young life.
As for the enslaved woman, researchers believe she suffered a condition known as Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, which occurs when blood supply to the ball part of the hip joint is temporarily interrupted and the bone begins to die. The symptoms of this disease include pain, limping, stiffness and limited motion of the leg.
“The symptoms increase with activity, and I can’t imagine that she had one day of her life where she was allowed to stay in bed,” Bruwelheide said.
Public historian and historical interpreter Cheyney McKnight also spoke at Thursday night’s event. As a specialist on the headwraps of African women in 18th- and 19th-century North America, McKnight said Comer asked her to tie the wrap around the bust of the enslaved woman — a task, McKnight admitted, she was first confused by. It’s just a headwrap, she remembers thinking.
However, she reluctantly agreed. Although she can never know for sure what the woman wore on her head, McKnight made an educated guess based off of drawings and paintings, as well as her own experience and lived history. She knows it is authentic — because she wrapped it from muscle memory.
“Tying this wrap was the closest I’ve ever gotten to being face-to-face with the ancestors,” she said.
Follow Angela Roberts on Twitter: @24_angier