Site of the future courthouse yields clues to the city's past

May 04, 1994|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Sun Staff Writer

In the parking lot behind the Anne Arundel County Courthouse, men and women are digging beneath the asphalt for treasure. Not gold or silver, but broken bits of pottery, glass and clay that will tell the stories of the people who lived there generations ago.

"This is a large, important site that has been inhabited for 350 years," said Mark Leone, an archaeology professor at the University of Maryland College Park who is a project leader at the site.

The work of his team, which began this week, will be brief. The exploration must be completed by July 15, before the site is lost beneath a new, $43 million courthouse.

Annapolis' Historic District Commission required the dig as part of its approval earlier this year of the courthouse project. The site will be open to tours and visitors later this month, Mr. Leone said.

Mr. Leone's group, Archaeology in Annapolis, already is familiar with the site, having dug there in 1990. At that time the site yielded rare pottery from the Colonial period and artifacts from a diverse black community that lived there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The bits of glass, lead pencils, buttons and animal bones unearthed four years ago are believed to be just a fragment of the wealth that lies beneath the parking lot, Mr. Leone said.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to explore African-American history, the middle class and lower-income residents," he said.

Mr. Leone added that this investigation will be more comprehensive than the last. Workers will dig up to 20 pits going to depths as low as 7 feet.

From past research and written records, the archaeologists know that in the 18th century the site lay at the town's edge and was in the city's original plan, but they do not know how it was used.

They know that the neighborhood was racially integrated in the 19th century, and that by the early 20th century the residents were all black.

The archaeologists are hoping to learn more details about the store operated in that neighborhood by Wiley H. Bates, a prominent black educator, and about the nearby Mount Moriah A.M.E. Church and its parsonages.

The church at 84 Franklin St., now the Banneker-Douglass Museum, was the home of the first free black congregation in Maryland.

Some black residents of Annapolis still remember the community that was bordered by Franklin, Cathedral, Charles and Duke of Gloucester streets.

"It was a beautiful area to live in," said Alderman Samuel Gilmer, a Ward 3 Democrat who lived there for a number of years.

He remembers his father, a street peddler, selling produce to the residents in the 1930s and 1940s.

"I think it's important to do a study of the area and try to understand how the black folks lived," Mr. Gilmer said.

Dr. Ronald L. Sharps, director of the the Banneker-Douglas Museum, said the archaeological expedition will go beyond the memories of the living residents to uncover facts they may not have known or had forgotten. He hopes to assemble the artifacts gleaned from the site into an exhibition at the museum.

"What we hope to achieve is a greater sense of the development of the whole neighborhood," he said.

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