Despite Losses, A Richness Remains


October 25, 1992|By Katherine Drew DeBoalt

In 1977, when a severe storm took the lives of her husband and five other watermen on the Chesapeake Bay, Margaret Johnson made herself a promise.

She vowed to tend the overgrown cemetery across from the abandoned frame of St. James Methodist Episcopal Church, and reclaim the graves of her people from the weeds and vines -- the same wild vegetation that threatened to bury the history of one of the first free black communities in Maryland.

Ms. Johnson, 63, kept her promise. Once a week, she can be seen pushing a mower through the grounds of the small cemetery in the tiny Eastern Shore village of Oriole, which sits along St. Peter's Creek south of Salisbury.

In its day, Oriole was a thriving community like many that sprang up along tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. Decades before the Civil War, free blacks began settling in Oriole, drawn by the abundance of the bay and fertile farm lands.

Central to the black community was St. James Church, constructed in 1885. It was the site of annual camp meetings that drew hundreds of people from Somerset County and beyond for singing, praying and eating every September.

"I'd see my mother baking pies and my father out tonging for oysters," recalls Ms. Johnson. "We ate under these great tents and people would pay 10 cents at the door to get in."

Ted Phoebus and his boyhood friends used to search the roads around St. James for dropped quarters and dimes after the crowds headed home. The youngest son of the late state Sen. Harry Phoebus, he grew up in the center of Oriole and now serves as the clerk of the court in neighboring Princess Anne. He remembers residents, black and white, attending the camp meetings.

"They were a very important part of our childhood," said Mr. Phoebus, 61. "We all went and we were all welcome."

The annual revivals ended when St. James was closed in the 1970s and the Methodist leadership instructed the dwindling congregation to merge with that of nearby Venton, Ms. Johnson said.

In the years since the church's wooden double doors were closed, the structure decayed and vandals carried off the chandeliers, pulpit furniture, even some pews. But the newly created Oriole Historical Society has raised enough money over the last year to replace the church roof and members hope to restore St. James.

The village has fared about as well as the church, lending a bittersweet beauty to the landscape. Nearly a third of the homes stand empty, vines and brush encircling porch rails and crumbling chimneys. Vacant windows stare out at the road, an occasional curtain or window blind flapping freely where the glass panes once were.

Many heirs to these once-proud clapboard homes have no interest in settling in a community where jobs are scarce and grocery shopping requires a commute down the highway. Others have set up mobile homes alongside the hulking shells of houses too long abandoned to make restoration practical.

Mary Bozman-Horner, 47, remembers when the bounty of the Manokin River and other fertile tributaries brought in enough money to make Oriole a bustling little town. Over the years there were several stores, a post office, a bottling company, even a roller rink. Her small crabbing business and boat launch are on the same waterfront site in Champ, the neighboring village, where she worked as a 12-year-old store clerk, selling groceries to the watermen.

Today, only about five crabbers leave regularly from the launch. The postal service as well as the telephone company lists Oriole residents as living in Princess Anne, seven miles down the road. Nevertheless, for the village's few hundred remaining residents, Oriole still offers a richness that remained long after the seafood economy began declining in the '50s and '60s.

Crabs still make their way up the saltwater gullies that run along the town's roads. A radio show called "Stardust Ballroom" plays big-band hits and comes in clearly in Oriole, somehow confirming the notion that the town has lingered behind the outside world.

A few young families have moved to Oriole in recent years, commuting to jobs in Salisbury and sometimes reclaiming the fallen homes. But most residents continue to come from those families that have been dug in for decades.

"In Oriole, there's nothing to do these days unless you farm," said Margaret Johnson, sitting in the living room of one of the original homes that formed the core of the town's black $l community. Still, Ms. Johnson has her children and grandchildren, and the cemetery she cares for just out of sight down the road. She seems content.

"It's my house. This is my land," she said.

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