Residents of tiny Cowdensville seek to preserve historic black community University project threatens to intrude

September 23, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

Although Evelyn Revels has lived in her rambling ranch house in Cowdensville since 1973 and is president of the community association, she still considers herself an outsider.

That's because the tiny enclave, which appears on few maps, is one of Baltimore County's most historic black communities.

"These people and their families have been here for generations. I'm the intruder," said the 64-year-old retired Baltimore schoolteacher.

According to residents, Mrs. Revels' house, built in 1973, was the first construction in Cowdensville since the 1940s and only two houses have been built since hers. Cowdensville has always been a residential community, with a school and a church as its only institutions, and a wide network of family relationships.

The 27-home community, straddling Sulphur Spring Road adjoining Arbutus, is generally buffered by park and county school land and the Arbutus Memorial Park, but residents are increasingly fearful of a real intrusion -- the biotechnological research center proposed by its giant neighbor, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

Cowdensville's only real landmark -- the small, white-shingled Methodist Church built in 1907 at Sulphur Spring Road and Shelbourne Road -- could return to its old-time role as community center, as the focus of community opposition to the university project.

The Rev. Delores A. Prioleau, pastor for three years, has had one community meeting about the project and said that she fears an influx of offices, laboratories and an unbearable increase in traffic.

"The value of the [residential] property would decrease, and we are very concerned about that," Ms. Prioleau said. "This community has lain dormant for more than 100 years, and now we are looking at an industrial park at UMBC and trying to find out its impact on the community."

Dorothy Briscoe, 59, has spent her entire life in Cowdensville, and while the once-rural area has become increasingly urbanized, she said that the UMBC project is the biggest threat ever.

"What started as a research center has suddenly become an industrial complex," said Ms. Briscoe, mathematics department head at Western High School. "We are organizing to fight it, but we have no recourse because no one will listen to you."

"We want to know how it will impact old, established communities," Mrs. Revels said.

County Councilwoman Berchie Lee Manley, R-1st, who represents the area, has spoken out against the project, which has the support of the governor and other top state officials. She contends it will increase traffic, damage the environment and tax overburdened utilities.

According to Adrienne Williams Jones, Baltimore County's minority-affairs director, the county has 39 recognized black communities, and "Cowdensville is one of the older true black settlements."

Ms. Jones, 36, a Cowdensville native, said that the first blacks were settled in the area some 200 years ago, as slaves on farms. The community was formed more than a century ago, possibly on land deeded to former slaves by a local landowner.

There is confusion about the name because a cornerstone from an earlier church placed in the 1907 structure reads: "Crowden Town Chapel -- 1857." The overgrown remains of the old church cemetery lie in woods off Garrett Avenue.

The cornerstone of the present church reads: "Cowdensville A.M.E. Church, 1857-1907." The stone was relaid in 1968 during a renovation after a truck rammed the building, Ms. Prioleau said.

"There are endless mysteries about Cowdensville's beginnings," said county historian John W. McGrain. "I haven't found Mr. Crowden or Cowden in the land records yet, although I did find that Enoch Pratt owned some land there."

While the church is listed on the Maryland Historical Trust inventory of historic places, it has not been nominated for the county landmarks list, Mr. McGrain said.

In horse-and-buggy days, the church was the focus of community life, but membership dwindled and was down to about five when Ms. Prioleau was appointed pastor.

"I'm trying to bring the church alive again," she said, noting that membership is now about 30.

But plenty of former members returned to the church yesterday for the annual Homecoming Day, an old-fashioned church get-together and supper. About 50 to 75 people attended the gathering, which included morning and evening services, said Cornelia Matthews, a church member.

Cowdensville represents "peace" to Ms. Revels, who said she moved from West Baltimore in search of "a long-established, stable black community."

"Once you live here it's difficult to go anywhere else. Neighbors are what neighbors are supposed to be."

Before most of the houses were built, the area around the community was agricultural, fields dotted with farmhouses, said Cornelia Matthews, 86, and Sarah Briscoe, 83, the oldest residents.

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