Montgomery County refuses to release “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” records

The Montgomery County Parks Department has spent more than $100,000 on historical and archaeological consultants to do research at the Josiah Henson Site (formerly known as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”). Except for the archaeology reports, you can read all of the consultants’ work at the park’s website. If you want to read about the archaeology done at the site, you are out of luck.

Despite the fact that Montgomery County Parks staff have posted detailed maps showing the locations of past and proposed archaeological investigations at the park, Parks staff and the Parks Department general counsel refuse to release the reports prepared by consultant John Milner Associates, Inc.

Parks Department staff claim that they cannot release the reports because they contain sensitive information. It is a legitimate claim in many cases: archaeologists don’t want to reveal exact locational information because relic hunters and looters may then use the information to damage fragile archaeological resources and steal artifacts for sale on the open market or for private collections.

I requested copies of the archaeological reports because I am interested in writing on the roles folklore and history have played in our understanding of the site. This is something I’ve written about on my blog and discussed with media outlets and in a public radio interview.

If I were just an ordinary citizen asking for copies of research reports paid for by public funds, the county would have some basis for denying my request to ensure the protection of the archaeological resources. But I’m not just an ordinary citizen. In addition to being a professional historian, I also am a trained professional archaeologist and for business purposes for more than 6 years I was certified as a Registered Professional Archaeologist.

So what does that mean? It means that my credentials meet and exceed the Secretary of the Interior’s Professional Qualifications Standards in archaeology and that I have been determined by various state historic preservation offices throughout the United States, including Maryland, to be qualified to practice as a professional archaeologist.

But when I requested copies of the archaeology reports from the Montgomery County Parks Department, I received this reply from Parks Department planner Rachel Newhouse:

M-NCPPC complies with state and federal laws regarding the disclosure of sensitive archaeological information. Researchers may contact the Maryland Historical Trust’s Archaeological Library to request archaeological information.

My request was forwarded to associate general counsel Derrick Rogers. He replied, “Your request for access to Josiah Henson Park archaeological reports is denied. These reports are not available to the public.” Rogers then wrote,

As noted in earlier responses to you from Commission staff and the Office of the General Counsel, your request is covered by the MPIA (Maryland Public Information Act). Under Maryland Access to Public Records Act (State Government Article, 10-618(g), Annotated Code of Maryland), the reports in question contain site specific information of a historic property and may be denied by the custodian of those records.

This decision by Commission staff complies with state and federal laws regarding the disclosure of sensitive archaeological information and consulted with the Maryland Historic Trust regarding your request.

If Montgomery County were interested in protecting sensitive archaeological information, then I doubt county staff would have posted detailed maps, like the one shown below on their website, that show where archaeological resources are located in the park property.

Page from the Josiah Henson Park Historic Structure Report showing detailed locations of archaeological resources.

Furthermore, renderings for future park development also contain information on past and future archaeological investigations. Anyone with a shovel and metal detector ā€” and a healthy disregard for the law and our heritage ā€” can go out there and attempt to avoid detection and dig up whatever they wish.

Montgomery County Parks Department Website rendering of the Josiah Henson Park showing archaeological testing locations.

I wonder how well Montgomery County’s tax dollars are being spent by the Parks Department in its ongoing efforts to develop the park and to manage the public narrative about the county’s expensive mistakes surrounding the property’s purchase. The Parks Department’s embargo of the archaeology reports lends new meaning to the phrase “money pit.”

Cross-posted on Greater Greater Washington

2 thoughts on “Montgomery County refuses to release “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” records

  1. Is this not with tax payers fund how can those individuals or even professional/qualified individuals be denied? How do they get away with it? Better yet, what are they really hiding????

    • I appreciate your concerns about open records. It has been a longstanding policy by federal, state, and local governments to protect the location of archaeological sites by withholding reports and other information. This policy is essential to prevent looting by people interested in excavating artifacts for sale on the illegal antiquities market and for private collections.

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