Public Soil Memory for the Plantationocene

local soil, clay, three-channel audio
SANDY SPRING MUSEUM, SANDY SPRING MARYLAND
Raina Martens and Brittney Robertson
 2017

Richard Thomas Senior's probate records listing the birth-dates and names his slaves.  [link]

Richard Thomas Senior's probate records listing the birth-dates and names his slaves. [link]

Tobacco Knife, 2004.0031.0032, from the Sandy Spring Museum Archives.

Tobacco Knife, 2004.0031.0032, from the Sandy Spring Museum Archives.

Photograph of the Sandy Spring Bone Mill, 1988.0026.0006, from the Sandy Spring Museum Archives.

Photograph of the Sandy Spring Bone Mill, 1988.0026.0006, from the Sandy Spring Museum Archives.

1810 Census, Cracklin District, Montgomery County, Maryland, from the Maryland State Archives.    

1810 Census, Cracklin District, Montgomery County, Maryland, from the Maryland State Archives. 

 

Brockbridge Correctional Facility, Jessup, Maryland. 

Brockbridge Correctional Facility, Jessup, Maryland. 

In the 1700’s and early 1800’s, tobacco was the primary cash crop in Sandy Spring. Profits from cultivating this labor-intensive crop were driven by slave labor. As plantation owners tried to extract the most profit from the land and most labor from the people they owned, the soil became so depleted of nutrients that it would no longer produce, it “rebelled.” The agricultural practice of tobacco monoculture, made profitable in the short-term by slave labor, was the source of severe loss of topsoil, not only in Sandy Spring but also in much of the tobacco-growing U.S.

Digging up property records for this site in the Sandy Spring Museum archive unearthed that, before being owned by the Bentley family, Richard Thomas Sr. owned this land; a prominent Quaker planter who in 1800, 6 years before his death, owned 58 slaves.

The ceramic stelae are covered in slip made from soil dug right across the street and their form is modeled after a stone property marker that stands on the Museum grounds. The printed documents and images come from the Archives and extended research: census records, names of slaves owned by Richard Thomas Sr., a tobacco knife, an image of a bone fertilizer mill, data from Montgomery County Department of Corrections.

The legacies of soil degradation and slavery haunt the Sandy Spring landscape. Broom sedge, a plant that indicates poor soil, populates the field directly across from the museum. Bloomfield, a house that Richard Thomas Sr. built for an overseer, still stands along Bentley Rd.

It takes a thousand years to regenerate 3 centimeters of topsoil. Always underfoot, the soil reveals entanglements of slavery, tobacco, and land that bring the past necessarily Into the present.
public soil plantationocene web.jpeg