Teacher focuses on saving Crofton's past for the future

August 09, 1994|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,Contributing Writer

What began as a project to save a historic house in Crofton has turned into 15 years of labor for Joe Browne.

In 1979, Dr. Browne, a high school history teacher in Prince George's County, teamed with a few of his neighbors in Crofton to preserve a house, barn and small cemetery, originally known as Linthicum Walks, which the Board of Education was planning to tear down to build Crofton Junior High School.

In the process of saving the property next to the junior high, Dr. Browne undertook a research project about the history of the area.

First, he wrote a series of articles for a local newspaper about Crofton history, then decided to develop a book out of the material. After six years of research and writing, Dr. Browne wrote "Sotweed to Suburbia: A History of the Crofton, Maryland area, 1660-1960," which was published in 1985 by Gateway Press of Baltimore.

"The reason I wrote the book was initially because of the project to save the property," Dr. Browne said. "I was interested in the history of the area even before I became involved with the house. What bothered me about living in a new suburb [such as Crofton] is, there's no indication of a past. They tear down whatever is there, and bulldoze and build something brand new, and you don't have any sense of what was there."

As the only known written history of the Crofton area, Dr. Browne's book also represents a preservation of local history.

"Some of the places that were still standing when I wrote the book, and which are pictured in it, have since become part of the bulldozing process and are no longer there," he said in an interview during a just-ended three-week visit to the Baltimore area.

"So it helped give some information about the past of Crofton that has since disappeared."

Dr. Browne continued his research after the book was published.

"The book has a couple of chapters on the schools in the area, including schools for African-Americans. And one of the things I found out was that after the Civil War, when the slaves were free, the state of Maryland refused to set up any schools for African-American children for seven years.

"In slave states, when the war was over, the Reconstruction period forced . . . some changes, including setting up public schools; whereas Maryland, being on the winning side, even though it was a slave state, didn't have to go through some of those changes and so didn't create a black school system.

"What I found out was that African-Americans created their own schools and they got some help from the federal government through the Freedman's Bureau," Dr. Browne said.

In an article for the Maryland Historical Society, Dr. Browne wrote about the five-year period after the Civil War when African-Americans in Anne Arundel and Calvert counties organized and raised money to build schools.

"It's really fascinating that they had an interest and a desire for education even though the state wasn't willing to fund it. They did everything they could to bring it about," he said.

Although there were other aspects of the African-American school system that Dr. Browne found interesting and wanted to research, he decided in 1990 to follow a lifelong dream to teach overseas. So, after teaching in Prince George's County for 22 years, he went to Malon, Italy. He teaches now at German Public School in Berlin.

nTC Nonetheless, Dr. Browne persisted in his research of Maryland. Last winter, he wrote two articles for the Maryland Historical Society.

Both articles, he says, "had to do with what happened to the African-American schools in Anne Arundel County after the state started to pay for them and the [20-year] struggle that the local African-Americans had with the local school board in trying to get more schools built."

Now Dr. Browne is researching and writing about John Henry Butler, an African-American from Baltimore who is mentioned in one of the articles.

Mr. Butler "played a key role in helping African-Americans in Anne Arundel and Calvert counties to get the schools built, especially in the years right after the Civil War. He worked for the Freedman's Bureau." Dr. Browne says.

Mr. Butler, who was born free in Prince George's County, was educated and became moderately wealthy from real estate development in the Camden Yards area of Baltimore.

Dr. Browne has encountered some difficulties gathering information about him because both of Mr. Butler's children died before he did in 1904. And none of Mr. Butler's relatives have responded to the ads that Dr. Browne has placed in local newspapers.

"The nature of African-American history in this country is that [the people] have not been noted and recorded in the same way that whites have been. So it makes it that much more difficult." Dr. Browne says.

It has been especially difficult for Dr. Browne to conduct his research from Germany, even though he makes the most of his trips back to the area.

Yet he says he won't quit until he feels that he's done all the research he can do. He's still actively searching for Mr. Butler's relatives and hopes to find a portrait or photograph of his subject.

"It's just something that I feel strongly needs to be better known," he said of his historical digging. "There were many African-American children in southern Maryland that got some form of education because of that particular man. I'm not going to let it go until I feel that I've done as much as I can with it.

"And I'm curious, too. Once you get into something like this, you want to know all you can."

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