Explore Maryland’s History of Freedom and Enslavement at Marietta House Museum

Marietta House Museum

The Marietta House Museum is unusual in that it spends more time on the folks the former house owners enslaved than on Marietta’s owners themselves. And that’s okay.

The tour introduces us to Serena, one of the women Gabriel Duvall and his family enslaved in the first stop: Duvall’s law office, a separate little building adjacent to the house. In various rooms along the tour, Serena, via short videos, discusses life as an enslaved woman, touches on sexual abuse (in a way that would be oblique to kids, so this is still a kid-friendly tour), life for black enslaved children on the plantation, the work enslaved people did, visitors to Marietta and how they treated enslaved people, education for enslaved children, seeking freedom and the fates of her two sons and more.

Despite the emphasis on the people Gabriel Duvall enslaved, he also is an interesting and even complex person. He was a lawyer and a judge, who, ironically, made his fame by successfully advocating on behalf of enslaved people who filed Freedom Petitions. In fact, he famously wrote that “It will be universally admitted that the right to property does not outweigh the right to freedom.”

Duvall’s Contradictions

Marietta tackles the contradictions Duvall presents head on, presenting Duvall as a slave-holder helping enslaved people win their Freedom Petitions without drawing much judgement — well, actually, Serena has a few thoughts about that. But after the stop in his law office, the tour also doesn’t dwell much on the Duvalls.

Although he won more cases than he lost, when some of the people he enslaved — the Butler family — filed a Freedom Petition, he fought hard to keep enslaving them. (The Butlers were represented by another famous name in American history: Frances Scott Key, another enslaver.) Duvall was clearly more at ease with freeing other people’s chattel slaves than his own. Ultimately, he lost, and three generations of the Butler family were freed.

Duvall was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1811 to 1835; many consider Duvall either the most insignificant Supreme Court justice or the second most insignificant. He was well liked by several presidents, and hosted them, including James Madison, at Marietta on occasion. The Duvall family enslaved anywhere from 9 to 40 people at Marietta between 1783 and 1864.

A Little History about Marietta

Marietta is a Federal-style historic house located in Glenn Dale, Prince George’s County, MD. Once a tobacco plantation, the historic mansion is now part of both the National Register of Historic Places and the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

The site includes a Federal-era house built between 1812–13, a cemetery, root cellar, harness room and Duvall’s original law office. The site is spread over 25 acres of the plantation’s original 690 acres.

Enslaved people, under Duvall’s direction, built Marietta. In Marietta’s bricks, you can even find fingerprints, probably of an enslaved person, who stuck two of their fingers into the bricks. That was pretty cool — a link to some unknown person from more than 200 years ago.

The Duvall’s enslaved multiple generations of enslaved families, including the Duckett, Butler, Jackson and Brown families, until slavery was abolished in Maryland in 1864. Nobody knows the whereabouts of a slave cemetery — it was likely not too far away from the Duvall family cemetery. The Duvall cemetery originally was located elsewhere. The spot where it is now was the site of several farm buildings.

Today, the site operates as the Marietta Historic House Museum, focusing on the history of the Duvall family and the enslaved people who lived and worked there. The museum provides a comprehensive view of American history through the lens of Marietta, focusing on social equity and the interconnected relationships between enslaved people and their enslavers. Visitors can take guided tours that delve into the complex relationships shaped by the nation’s founding documents and local slave codes, and learn about the various paths to freedom taken by the enslaved families.

Know Before You Go

The tour and the house museum are not accessible. There is ample off-street parking. Tours take place at 11, 1 or 3, but if it’s a slow day, they’ll take you as you walk in.

Getting there: 5626 Bell Station Rd, Glenn Dale, MD
Hours: Tues – Fri, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Website: Marietta-house-museum

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