Friends help genealogist recover history After woman loses work in fire, admirers donate research tools

February 19, 1996|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

A month ago today, Agnes Callum's world burned to the ground when a gas explosion destroyed her Baltimore home.

With it went 25 years of research and writings on the African-American experience in Maryland.

Yesterday, the highly regarded folk historian got a shock of a different sort.

More than 25 of her friends, admirers, and fellow genealogists showed up at a speech she was scheduled to give at the Howard County Library in Columbia, and presented Mrs. Callum, 70, with an array of gifts -- all to help her begin the painstaking process of restoring her lost work and to take up new projects.

With a smile and barely held-back tears, Mrs. Callum told the group, "I'm just overwhelmed. For the first time in my life, I'm speechless. What friends I have."

The event provided Mrs. Callum with a cathartic moment as she recounted her escape from her home as it erupted in flames and explosions the night of Jan. 19. The home was leveled. A gas leak was cited as the cause.

"I lost so much. My brother's Purple Heart. My mother's wedding dress. So much."

The support of her friends overwhelmed Mrs. Callum.

"This is more than an event to surprise Agnes with gifts," said Angela Walton-Raji, a Catonsville genealogist who helped organize the event.

"We're honoring you, Agnes; celebrating your life. We're just so grateful you weren't hurt and that we still have your presence with us."

Admirers from around the country donated almost 50 items for yesterday's surprise, including use of a laptop computer, Maryland historical slavery records on microfilm and computer disk, and historical research reference books.

They also donated copies of all 21 books Mrs. Callum has written and published, as well as a complete set of issues of Flower of the Forest, the annual journal about black genealogy that she has edited and published since 1982.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke sent a proclamation declaring Feb. 18 as Agnes Callum day in the city, while a genealogical society in Chicago sent word it planned to hold a fund-raiser for Mrs. Callum.

Members of the Central Maryland African-American Historical and Genealogical Society, who organized yesterday's surprise, also persuaded the Maryland State Archives to quickly reproduce on a computer disk a collection of "bounty records," which Mrs. Callum had painstakingly researched and indexed for the state archives years ago.

The fire destroyed Mrs. Callum's copies of the records, which document African-Americans freed after the Civil War.

Mrs. Callum was preparing to write a book about the freed slaves and the importance of the so-called "certificates of freedom," when her records and her home at 822 Bonaparte St. were destroyed.

Sylvia Cooke-Groce, an African-American genealogist from Columbia, said supporters decided that donations of historical records and the tools needed to conduct research would be more helpful to Mrs. Callum than household items.

"We knew Agnes wanted to move toward the future and keep on with her research. She's not one to be held back by the past," Ms. Cooke-Groce said.

She said word of the fire spread quickly in the genealogical research community.

Within days, an effort to collect documents and research tools began so Mrs. Callum, who received bachelor's and master's degrees after raising five children, could get started with her work again.

Admirers posted a notice on a bulletin board on the Internet to let history buffs around the country know about the effort.

Said Ms. Walton-Raji, "It's every historians' nightmare that they will lose all their records."

Mrs. Callum lost two microfilm readers -- an essential tool for genealogists -- and a laptop computer on which she stored her writings and records.

As for the records lost in the fire, they included valuable Civil War-era photographs, original slave records bought at auction, and her chronicles of 5,700 African-American marriages in St. Mary's County, where Mrs. Callum's family history dates back 300 years.

Her ancestors worked as slaves on a Southern Maryland tobacco plantation, Sotterley Plantation. Mrs. Callum's work has included lTC researching her family record and that of Sotterley. She also has been trying to stir interest in preserving the plantation as a public institution.

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