Columbia chosen for first forum on African-Americans Heritage is focus: The rich history of African-Americans in Maryland will be explored in the first of a series of statewide seminars tomorrow at Howard Community College.

March 22, 1996|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,SUN STAFF

Citing Columbia's openness to ethnic diversity, the Maryland Humanities Council has chosen the new town as the site of the first in a series of forums around the state focusing on the heritage of African-Americans in Maryland.

"It ties into what Columbia is all about being the next America and a truly integrated community," Mallory Maxwell, a council spokeswoman, said about the choice of Howard Community College for tommorrow's inaugural forum.

The free series "The African-American Experience in Maryland" is intended to illustrate contributions African-Americans have made to the state, said Barbara Wells Sarudy, the council's executive director.

Created by the council's Coalition for Maryland History and Culture Inc., the series will end Sept. 28 with a forum at Charles County Community College in LaPlata.

"There has always been an African-American population in Maryland whether free or slaves," Mrs. Sarudy said. "We thought the contributions of African-Americans were largely overlooked."

And Columbia founded on principles of racial harmony and sandwiched between concentrations of African-American scholars in Baltimore and Washington was seen as an appropriate location to start the series, organizers said.

"This is a program for everybody, and everybody is going to get something out of it," said Doris H. Ligon, founder and director of the Maryland Museum of African Art in Columbia's town center, who designed tomorrow's forum.

Funded through a $75,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the series grew out of what many in the coalition saw as a need for a greater emphasis on blacks in Maryland's history.

The heritage of Maryland's African-American population which totaled 1.2 million as of the 1990 census is rich and varied, dating back to the Colonial era and slavery, said John A. Jones, deputy director of the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore.

Among Maryland's well-known African-Americans are: Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, born in Baltimore; Harriet Tubman, the "conductor" of the Underground Railroad, who was born in Dorchester County; and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, born on the Eastern Shore.

Earlier this month, the state approved the $500,000 purchase of Douglass' summer house in Highland Beach in Anne Arundel County Maryland's first private black town to convert it to an archival museum.

"This history is definitely worth saving," said Mrs. Sarudy, of the humanities council.

Howard County home to about 22,000 African-Americans and with one of the nation's highest concentrations of black households with incomes of $50,000 or more also has played a significant part in the state's African-American heritage, local historians say.

The Freetown neighborhood, in Simpsonville, is named for freed blacks who settled in that area, said Wylene Burch, director of the Howard County Center of African-American Culture Inc. in Columbia's Town Center village. It's also home to the county's oldest black church, Locust United Methodist Church.

In contemporary times, C. Vernon Gray in 1982 became the first and, so far, only African-American elected to the County Council, and last year Howard Circuit Court Judge Donna Hill Staton became the county's first black judge.

In organizing tomorrow's event, Mrs. Ligon asked James E. Henson Sr., head of the county's office on human rights, to talk about his great uncle, the Arctic explorer Matthew Henson, a Charles County native.

She also invited local political activist and civil rights pioneer Leola M. Dorsey to talk about her life.

Ms. Dorsey, a lifelong Guilford resident, joined the county's NAACP in 1944 and, three years later, became the first and only female president of the chapter. In the 1960s, she was the first black woman elected to the Republican Central Committee. In the 1970s, she was the first African-American to run for the County Council.

"She might not be included in any history books, but she has made a tremendous difference in this county," Ms. Ligon said of the local activist.

The seminar tomorrow also will feature African-American storytelling, music and exhibits.

Further information about the series is available by contacting the Maryland Humanities Council at (410)-625-4830.

Pub Date: 3/22/96

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