Nestled in over 2,500 acres of sprawling hillside in Edgewater, and just steps away from 16 miles of Chesapeake Bay shoreline, is a quaint red-brick building – Woodlawn House.
In the nearly 300 years of the House’s existence on the grounds, slaves have been seen toiling in vast fields without shade, Jim Crow laws change the contours of American society, dozens of presidents take office and several generations of the Sellman and Kirkpatrick-Howat families play, work and grow.
After excavating about 200 artifacts from the property and restoring it to pristine condition, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center celebrated the home’s opening in the form of a small exhibit on Wednesday. It will be open to visitors free of charge every Saturday, from July 2, from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
The exhibit offers visitors a unique opportunity to understand what life was like in Anne Arundel County for the past 300 years, said Smithsonian volunteer Barbara Wingrove, who will guide the exhibit.
“It is designed from the oldest [parts of history] and as you go through the rooms, you get newer and newer and newer,” Wingrove said.
Built in 1735, Woodlawn House is the oldest building in the Smithsonian collection that still stands in its original location. The building has withstood hundreds of disastrous winters and scorching summers. The neighboring Java Mansion on the same property, built around 1747, was even struck by lightning in 1890. The mansion caught fire and the back of the building collapsed, but it was rebuilt.
William Sellman, a descendant of slaves who worked on the property, attended the opening of the new exhibit on Wednesday. Sellman and others who have family ties to the house didn’t know it was historically significant until the Smithsonian approached them.
“It’s interesting to have the family history and the heritage here,” Sellman said. “No one had a clue. It’s really important to us,”
William Sellman was also the name of the white man who built the house. Sellman believes his family adopted the surname of their slave owners.
The first piece of property – 368 acres – was donated to the Smithsonian in 1965 by the dairy farmer who owned it, said Smithsonian Environmental Research Center director Tuck Hines. The Smithsonian saw the acquisition as an opportunity to expand the organization’s research into the Chesapeake Bay region.
The Smithsonian eventually partnered with six universities, including the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University, to share ecological research on the property, Hines said. Over the decades, the research body acquired more and more land until it came to preserve 2,654 acres, he said.
Artifacts on display include pieces of pottery and glass, preserved seashells, coins, keys, chisels and other tools used in and around the house over the past three centuries. They also feature the history before the house was built, when Native Americans lived on the land.
“The story goes back 3,000 years to the first people who collected oysters in the bay and developed an elaborate culture here and it continues to the present day with startling new discoveries about the people who were on the property,” Hines said. “These discoveries come to us almost every week.”
Sellman acknowledged that it was a bit strange to be in the presence of the house where his slave ancestors worked, but said those close to him would be impressed with how far the family, and black Americans in general, have come from the beginning. 1700s. It’s a shame that family members who worked on the property never knew how well his three children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren are doing, Sellman said.
“They were here from slavery to sharecroppers and then we ventured out and started taking on other careers,” he said. “We have family members across the country who are doing great things…in military and educational settings. We have come a long way, with each generation doing a little better.
Sellman said he can’t wait to take his great-grandchildren to see the exhibit and the property and enjoy the rare opportunity to show the younger generation of Sellmans exactly where they came from.
“They will be here one day to visit and really understand,” he said.