Local blacks working to record past

February 19, 2006|By Tiffany Arnold

Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.

- Carter G. Woodson


Historian and author Carter G. Woodson, known as the Father of Black History, might have started the effort to preserve local black history when, in 1920, he recorded the names and addresses of freed blacks living in the area before the Civil War.

Woodson included Washington County and Hagerstown in his book "Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830."

But Woodson - who founded Negro History Week, the precursor to Black History Month - was not from Washington County, or even Maryland.

"Everything that has been written about blacks in Washington County has been written by people who don't live in Washington County," said local historian John Frye, curator of the Washington County Free Library's Western Maryland Room.


Frye and others said they would like to see a greater local effort made to record local black history.

"One key person or persons researching black history has yet to arrive," Frye said. "We're still waiting."

Frye, in the meantime, has asked a California-based researcher to gather information on local blacks.

Hagerstown City Councilwoman Alesia Parson-McBean, possibly the first black person elected to a city office, said it was a shame that more hasn't been done.

"It's been unfortunate all the way around in preserving black history, especially in Washington County," Parson-McBean said.

That is not to say that nothing has been done. And other projects are in the works.

What's been done

The Doleman Black History Museum, which temporarily is closed, and the African American Heritage Guide - a pamphlet put out last fall by the Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau - are among the efforts to date by local residents to preserve and/or showcase local black history.

Marguerite Doleman, 79, started the museum and ran it for years out of her Locust Street home. The museum included a collection of books, pictures and bills of sale of Washington County slaves and highlighted a collection of quilts made by former slaves.

Doleman, who died Nov. 11, 2001, was considered to be Washington County's first black historian, Frye said.

Andy Smith, president of Brothers United Who Dare To Care, is heading up efforts to find a permanent location for the museum.The African American Heritage Guide lists people and pictures of interest and lists historic sites throughout Washington County.

The guide was a joint effort among the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Washington County Historical Society, the African-American Historical Society and photographer Ron Lytle, said Tom Riford, president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

New efforts

Brian Robinson, head of the African American Historical Society, said city officials are working on a plaque to be installed at the site of the old Washington County Jail, in the historically black Jonathan Street neighborhood.

The jail was torn down in 1985 and now is the site of Rapid Lube.

Robinson said the building should have been preserved.

"That's the place where they took fugitive slaves," Robinson said. "A lot of people don't know black people were bought and sold there."

Robinson and city officials plan to unveil the plaque this spring, Robinson said.

Robinson already has installed a plaque at the site where the Harmon Hotel once stood.

Baseball legend Willie Mays stayed at the hotel, which was owned by Robinson's great-grandfather, Walter Harmon.

Family members sold the hotel, which was vacant and in disrepair, in the 1980s, Robinson said.

Robinson said his recent projects were motivated by a report the city issued in 2002.

The Heritage Preservation Project, as it was called, detailed the history of Jonathan Street. Hagerstown City Planner Kathleen A. Maher said the city commissioned the report to fill a void in the county's history.

The report offered several suggestions, which ranged from establishing Jonathan Street as a municipal historic district to preserving the Doleman Museum.

Maher said the city lacked the money needed to implement all of the report's suggestions. She noted that since the study's release, the city has been collaborating with the African American Historical Society and planned to assist Robinson with the group's current project.

The study noted that black churches played an important role in the Jonathan Street area.

J.T. Blake, pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church, has written several academic papers about the history of his 188-year-old church.

Asbury was founded by freed blacks who broke away from a white congregation in 1818 to form their own church on Jonathan Street. Asbury is regarded as one of the oldest black churches in the area, according to historic documents.

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