Agnes Kane Callum’s long search for her roots

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On Friday, Sotterley Plantation in St. Mary’s County opened its only remaining slave cabin to the public and dedicated it to the memory of Agnes Kane Callum, a genealogist whose own grandfather was a slave at Sotterley.

Agnes Callum Kane only slept four and a half hours a night. She must have spent much of the remaining 19.5 hours doing research.

On her maternal side, Callum could trace her own lineage back to the 1600s: to an Irish woman named Eleanor Butler who had come to the New World as an indentured servant, a washerwoman for the third Lord Baltimore. In Maryland, Butler fell in love with an enslaved man, whose name in public records was “Negro Charles.” The couple got married, against the advice of Lord Baltimore, as Meredith Newman wrote for The Capital Gazette last year.

The couple’s children sued for their freedom; the long and complex court case that resulted provided Callum substantial documentation to learn about her ancestors.

“I feel glad to know that I had such a vested interest in Maryland,” Callum said in a 1991 Sun interview. “In 1681, my people weren’t even in Africa. They were in Maryland.”

Callum also discovered that her father’s ancestors had been slaves at Sotterley Plantation around the time of the Civil War.

“I know this,” she said. “After the Civil War my people stayed on the plantation until (their former slave owner) died. They didn’t have to.”

The first time she came to visit Sotterley, Callum found that the slave cabin was off-limits to the public. Undeterred, she spent years bringing relatives, friends and students to the plantation by bus (it’s about a two-hour drive from Baltimore) and sharing stories about the lives of enslaved people she had heard from family members.

Though many Americans, have avoided talking extensively about slavery due to shame and discomfort with the past, Callum was proud of her enslaved family members, she told The Sun in 1984. Not because they did anything outstanding or memorable, but simply because they survived in the face of such an oppressive system.

“I feel so proud to be one of them,” she told The Sun’s Dan Rodricks. “As far as I have researched, I have not found any incidents where my people did anything outstanding, nor did they do anything criminal or unjust against anyone. So I’m proud that they could survive the system [of slavery]. I look at the slave cabins, 12-by-12 rooms with a dirt floor and cracks in the walls, and yet they still survived.”

In the 1990s, Callum became the first African-American member of the museum’s board of directors. This past weekend, Sotterley paid tribute to her life’s work by naming the 1830s-era slave cabin near the main mansion in her honor.

Callum would not live to see it. The woman who needed so little sleep finally died in 2015 at the age of 90.