Historian loses decades of work in fire

January 23, 1996|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

More than 25 years of research into African-American history and genealogy were lost early Friday morning when fire destroyed the Bonaparte Street home of Agnes Callum, who was the focus of a feature story in Monday's Today section about the Sotterley Plantation in St. Mary's County.

After what was apparently a gas explosion, Mrs. Callum, who is 70, escaped unharmed by smashing a second-floor bedroom window at 822 Bonaparte St., then dropping from a porch roof with the help of neighbors and police.

"I lost everything, everything! Twenty-five, maybe 30 years of work," she said. "It took the whole house down. I just got out with my life."

The fire represented a tragic loss for Mrs. Callum, who is a tireless, determined chronicler of black genealogy and African-American history.

"It's devastating," said Beulah Buckner, secretary of the Central Maryland African-American Historical and Genealogical Society. "Some of the public records are replaceable. But the family stuff she gathered together for years is gone."

Destroyed were bound volumes of 14 years of Mrs. Callum's Flower of the Forest journal, her chronicle of Civil War black soldiers and her painstakingly assembled records of 5,700 African-American marriages in St. Mary's County.

She lost a large collection of research materials, including rare photos of black soldiers, 35 rolls of microfilm records of such things as the Freedman's Savings Bank of Washington, along with her microfilm reader and computer.

Also believed destroyed was personal memorabilia such as two 18th-century family Bibles, letters of her grandfather, who was born into slavery on Sotterley Plantation, family photographs dating back more than 75 years and her mother's wedding dress from 1919.

She hoped to able to retrieve records stored on the hard disk of her computer. And she vowed to carry on her work. "Indeed, I will," she said. "Of course!"

As an active trustee of the Sotterley Mansion Foundation, Mrs. Callum has been been working to restore the slave quarters at the 285-year-old plantation and preserve the financially strapped Sotterley as a public institution.

She's an extraordinarily patient, persistent and resourceful researcher, who in a quarter-century of scouring records from St. Mary's courthouse to Ghana, West Africa, has become a widely known and respected folk historian.

She went to Ghana on a Fulbright Fellowship. She's the historian of St. Francis Catholic Church. She's been president of the Baltimore chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society. She planned to travel to the United Kingdom this spring to research slave trade records in Liverpool.

Since retiring after 20 years with the Baltimore Post Office, she's virtually devoted her life to the study and preservation of African-American history and genealogy.

Fire officials said her home was totally destroyed in the gas explosion. Mrs. Callum has been staying with a friend and neighbor, Lucille Whitaker. And today she goes about trying to preserve the remnants of nearly half-a-lifetime of her research into her past and the past of her people.

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