LaPLATA, Md. — Some families hand down heirlooms of silver or gold, but the historical riches the Digges family has preserved for America include a 23 1/2-pound ball and chain used to shackle its slave ancestors.
"This really proved to me that we had--and still have--real mean people," said William Digges, gazing at the iron used to weigh down his great-grandfather for 20 years after repeated unsuccessful attempts to escape from slavery.
Digges, 67, a retired schoolteacher, has created a black history museum out of the relics of slavery and sharecropping that his relatives experienced in southern Maryland's tobacco-growing country.
Unlike the cold, "hands-off" attitude of many museum curators, Digges encourages his visitors--many of them schoolchildren--to touch an old ox-drawn cultivator, pick up a salt-preserved squirrel or peer inside a black midwife's medical satchel.
The most dramatic part of his collection is the ball and chain, which Digges said his great-grandmother removed from his great-grandfather's leg after his death by chopping off his foot with an ax.
But other items, such as original bills of sale for slaves, flogging whips and the back-breaking iron buckets carried by slave washerwomen, somberly help to drive home the reality of bondage endured by generations of blacks.
"A lot of people don't want to be reminded of the past; they don't see the beauty of it,' said Louise Webb, a volunteer who helps support the museum.
In addition to material that tells of blacks' hard work and pain, the museum boasts of black accomplishments. Pictures of black leaders line the wall and historic photographs of southern Maryland blacks show well-built homes and families decked out in their Sunday finery.
Another display proudly tells of the role of blacks in helping track down President Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, and how their testimony helped convict other suspects in the plot.
"I grew up with an inferiority complex. I always thought I didn't know as much as the white kids knew," said Webb, who said when she went to school she was taught "no black history at all."
Digges, who began his teaching career at the age of 16, said he started sneaking bits of black history into his courses even though he says at the time such curriculum was against Maryland law.
In the 1930s, he began asking his grandparents and their contemporaries for the battered utensils, worn tools and yellowing documents sitting around their Charles County homes. Digges' efforts started none too soon because during the Depression, many hard-pressed families sold valuable pieces of black history to antique collectors at bargain prices.
The museum, which is jammed into two school rooms allocated by the county, not only depicts blacks as they saw themselves in U.S. history, but also documents the bigoted manner in which many early 19th Century whites viewed blacks.
Aunt Jemima dolls, "coon" sheet music and postcards depicting watermelon-eating "pickaninnies" occupy a significant berth in Digges' collection.
"I have these things here because it is history. . . . This is a form of prejudice that was real and it stamped in white people's minds certain images about black people," Digges said. "You couldn't fault a white child who looked at these degrading things for having a negative image of black people."
Some Start to Cry
The former teacher said when schoolchildren visit the museum he passes around the demeaning post cards and waits for their reaction.
"Some start crying, some lie down and say nothing, and others laugh or get angry," said Digges, who then uses the cards to start students talking about the stereotypes and prejudice blacks have had to fight over the years.
Digges and the Afro-American Heritage Society of Charles County are trying to raise funds to build a black museum and cultural center on five acres of land in LaPlata. In addition to the Maryland effort, Digges has helped establish a black history museum, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," near Dresden, Ontario--a Canadian town that was a refuge for many runaway slaves, including Digges' great-uncle.
"I think more people are getting interested in black history. You've got to if you have any sense," Digges said.