A Photo Album For Annapolitans

November 29, 1990|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

Author Mame Warren calls it a homecoming -- dozens of Annapolitans finding their roots and each other after years of forgetting.

The real people of the city's history speak in her new photo history book, "Then Again . . . Annapolis, 1900-1965." Blacksmiths, domestic workers, Navy widows, greengrocers and bureaucrats appear in more than 200 photos or reminisce in the book's oral history interviews.

To Warren, art curator at the State Archives, the book seems to have grabbed people's hearts. Of 5,000 books printed for a first press run, more than half have sold since the book reached the stores two weeks ago. The book costs $42 hardcover and $27.50 in paperback.

But what's really significant to her are the hundreds of people who ask for her autograph, insisting she write down the fact that they, too, are natives of the city.

"It's like they're identifying. It's a homecoming for those of us who grew up here, finding each other through this project," says Warren, 39.

For years, natives of Annapolis have moaned that only a few of them remained, says Warren, who grew up in Annapolis. The book has proved that false, as dozens of people have recognized old friends in the book and telephoned them.

"It's like this huge network has formed, with people saying they're hearing from people they haven't heard from in years," she says. "We're still here. And the response is so intense, people recognize the stories and the feelings and say, 'This is my childhood.' " A piece of Warren's own childhood shows up in the book, a photograph that hung on the wall of her parent's home. Her father, noted photographer Marion Warren, snapped the shot of a black family on their porch, watching a parade. They are at ease, unposed, happy.

"It epitomizes real people being absolutely natural, and I'm thrilled to be the one to publish it," says Warren.

The photo was taken on Clay Street, often the setting nowadays for drug-related violence, says Warren. Back then, though, it was the social center of the black community. Warren likes the contrast. "I want to show people that Clay Street doesn't have to be a violent place. It can still be a wonderful place for people connecting with each other."

Another of her favorite pictures shows some bleary-eyed people, one waving a jug of whiskey, hanging out on a touring car in the 1920s. "You always hear about Prohibition and people making their own liquor, but you never think you'll find a picture of it," says Warren. "I was thrilled."

"Then Again" developed from an oral history project, an effort to gather stories and photographs depicting life in Annapolis during the first part of the 20th century.

But there were just too many memories to fit into the theater presentation and traveling exhibit of photographs. Warren realized the material merited a more permanent record.

After a frenzied year -- with three year's work packed into 18-hour days, she says -- a book evolved that documents in words and pictures the first efforts to preserve the town's colonial heritage, the beginnings of its yachting industry, the expansion of the city and the Naval Academy and the first thrusts toward integration.

"There seemed to be a policy, there seemed to be some type of unwritten law, we can work together, we can talk together, but we draw the line at association together," one man interviewed remembers about the years when many aspects of life in Annapolis were segregated.

During those years, the state's capital city was a sleepy town whose only industry, besides government, was harvesting the waters that bound it.

Yet it was a town infused with the sophistication of two colleges, the U.S.

Naval Academy and St. John's College.

Many of those interviewed remembered poignant stories about their parents and grandparents. The book quotes a man's memories of his parents' early advertising techniques: "Then when my mama came here from Russia, my parents opened up the store at 50 West Street. That's right on the corner of Gott's Court Alley and West Street. My mother and father rented that little tailor shop. And they would sit in that window sometimes until 2 o'clock in the morning to make out they were busy, pressing their own clothes."

One recurring theme was stories relating to the water, Warren says. Many people told her that the Great Depression was not as serious in Annapolis as elsewhere because "you didn't go hungry. You could walk to the end of any street and there was food, if you had a crab net and a couple of hours, you could have a bushel of crabs. Now you could sit there for a week and not get a bushel," she says. "People feel a tremendous amount of sadness over that one theme of the bay."

Warren had been gathering photographs of the period for some time, including several high quality collections by professional photographers.

"They tended to be public pictures. Then we added pictures taken by amateurs, more intimate family scenes."

A grant from the Maryland Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities supported the project. Sharie Valerio and Beth Whaley helped conduct oral history interviews and created the theater presentation and traveling exhibit. The exhibit is at St. John's College until the end of this month; for December it moves to the lobby of Annapolis Federal Bank in Parole.

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