By Angelie Roche
On Aug. 19, 2021, St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM) sent out a message to students announcing its initiation of a new land acknowledgment and pledge in remembrance of the Indigenous and enslaved peoples who were crucial to the history of the college’s land.
The pledge, which will appear in various places around campus and in faculty syllabi, states “We acknowledge that the land on which we are learning, working and gathering today is the ancestral home of the Yacocomico and Piscataway Peoples. We also acknowledge that St. Mary’s City was partly built and sustained by enslaved people of African descent. Through this acknowledgment, we recognize these communities and all those who have been displaced and enslaved through colonization.”
According to Professor Julie King of the anthropology department, this encompasses much of St. Mary’s history which was ignored or forgotten in years past. When English colonizers arrived here, she said, the land was already occupied by several Indigenous groups: the Piscataway in Prince George’s County, the Yacocomico in St. Mary’s City, and the Wicomico in northern Virginia. Each community had a rich and complex history long before European settlement in the 17th century.
While there have been acknowledgements to Indigenous history in SMCM’s past, the college hopes to continuously recognize and better understand the importance of these groups. One important change this year is the spelling of Yacocomico – as King explained, the college has “ask[ed] Piscataway members, including members who are tribal historians, what they would prefer as the spelling.”
Enslaved Africans were first brought to Virginia in 1619, and were therefore present in Maryland from the beginning of colonization. King says that the famed Calvert family, who are known for promoting freedom of (Christian) religion, also promoted African slavery in the region. Colonial leaders in Maryland and Virginia also enslaved Indigenous peoples to work on Chesapeake plantations, though little is currently known about this practice. Eventually, much of the labor in and around St. Mary’s was enslaved labor; King states that “On the eve of the American Civil War, more than half the population of St. Mary’s County included enslaved men, women, and children of African descent.”
While this pledge may seem like a simple statement, it holds much meaning and importance to St. Mary’s students as well. King hopes that it will further “raise awareness among students about the rich and complicated history of this special place.” She also points out that, while Maryland is often praised for its promotion of free religion, it must also be recognized as a place that repeatedly “restricted the mobilities and possibilities for Indigenous and African people” by taking advantage of their land, labor, and lives. Maybe, by speaking about this in every class, professors can begin to weave these forgotten parts of history into the minds of their students.
Some are already eager to do so; just last week, Professor Angela Johnson of the Educational Studies department read the pledge to her Education in America class and told them a bit about what it meant to her. In her words, “We [as teachers] do more than acknowledge this history – we dedicate ourselves to public service because it is the least we can do to make up for it.”