A walk through black history Tour illustrates contributions of African-Americans

November 13, 1995|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

More than 200 years of black history can be found in one Annapolis mile. Now, the city's preservationists want you to walk it.

The Historic Annapolis Foundation is putting the finishing touches on a new black history walking tour with an accompanying audiotape that illustrates the contributions of black slaves, politicians, landowners and educators in Annapolis since the 1700s.

"In the past the attention has been on the great houses of the great dead white men," said Jean Russo, research director for the foundation. "But there's a much greater history to Annapolis, and we want to show that."

The tour won't be unveiled until the winter, but it got a trial run Saturday by a group from St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Annapolis. Church members, many of whom have lived in Annapolis for decades, will suggest ways to improve the tour.

"I'm very excited because this is something that's never been done before in Annapolis," Annapolis resident Tony Spencer, 44, said after completing the hour-long route. "But just being from the area, I know there's more that could have been in the tour. This gives just the basic information."

Across the country, cities are trying to treat black history in significant ways. It's an effort federal tourism officials say they support.

"We've been pushing businesses and trying to encourage all the states and the cities to expand their multicultural tourism," said Patricia McNally, an international tourism specialist with the U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration.

Two years ago, Maryland's economic development and cultural officials devised a black tourism initiative for the state, promoting Maryland in tourism magazines and national newspapers as a repository of black history.

In the summer, the Annapolis city government published "African-American Heritage in Annapolis," a pamphlet detailing some of the lesser-known historic neighborhoods and architectural discoveries in the city. Now, the new walking tour tries to take a closer look at the lives of the city's black residents, who have comprised one-third of the Annapolis population since the 1700s.

Over the past two years, Ms. Russo has culled records and newspaper clippings to research the tour. The sites date from before the Civil War, when about 400 of the city's 4,000 residents were free blacks, to the 1970s, when many black neighborhoods were razed in the name of urban renewal.

The route covers 15 sites in downtown Annapolis, including the Maynard-Burgess House, a home on Duke of Gloucester Street where black families have lived since 1847. It is considered one of the few Annapolis homes associated exclusively with the black community.

Much of the tour requires a good imagination, since so many old homes have been razed and replaced by modern buildings. For that reason, the tour does not dwell on buildings, but focuses instead on the people who occupied them, including black figures whose contributions reached far beyond the city's limits.

When visitors hear the story of wealthy landowner William Bishop, for example, they will see a NationsBank where his Church Circle mansion sat in the 1860's.

Visitors will be told the story of William Butler, an Annapolis landowner who in 1863 was the first black elected to public office in Maryland.

And it describes Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, an Annapolis resident who in 1897 became the first physician to perform a successful operation on the human heart.

The tour also goes into the life of explorer Matthew Henson, a Charles County native. He and Robert Peary -- on their 1909 Arctic expedition -- were the first people to reach the North Pole.

The tour is so focused on success stories that it only skims the painful chapters of black history, such as slavery, segregation, discrimination and racial hate. And it touches only briefly on the history of the Clay Street neighborhood -- the city's best-known repository of black history and culture that is now troubled by drugs and crime. Indeed, tourists are led to the edges of the neighborhood but are not encouraged to visit.

Several black community leaders approve of this format, saying the tour should focus on black achievement that often goes unrecognized.

"It's no secret why the tour stops at Clay Street," said Carl O. Snowden, a local alderman and civil rights advocate. "The only way you can have a tour through Clay Street is if that community gets up to speed first."

Mr. Snowden hopes the tour will bring more equity to the historic district, a wealthy area whose prosperity has eluded blacks. Currently, blacks do not own any businesses or bed-and-breakfasts in the neighborhood, he noted.

"The black community has not benefited from tourism, which is a major industry in Annapolis," Mr. Snowden said.

"Annapolis is rich in black history, and it would be a natural to take advantage of that."

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