Family inspired by patriarch's life Reunion: Joshua Gwynn bought his freedom and established a large farm. His descendants, visiting the former homestead, take pride in his accomplishments.

August 17, 1996|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

They rolled up their pants legs and forded the creek. They pushed through the bramble and climbed the hill.

The elders and the youngsters of an African-American family made a pilgrimage yesterday to the woodlands of the Gunpowder valley, hiking the acres where their founding father gained a foothold on freedom.

And when they got there, they found traces of a life that has inspired generations. It was a time for pondering the legacy of Joshua Gwynn, a slave who bought his freedom and became a prosperous farmer and landowner -- and sired a proud and industrious family.

This weekend, his descendants have come from as far as California for a reunion in Baltimore. Here, they'll revel in their shared heritage.

Talbert Gwynn, a minister from Wilmington, Del., who helped organize the reunion, said the family's younger generations can take a lesson from the past.

"One of the things I hope they'll understand is a bit about the nature of freedom," he said. "No one can put slavery in your

mind. They can put your body into slavery, but they can't enslave your mind. I know Joshua Gwynn knew that.

"If a man can learn to be free in those times, goodness knows he has something to say to us today -- if we can hear it."

Patricia Roberts, a 53-year-old Environmental Protection Agency lawyer who is Joshua Gwynn's great-granddaughter, said her ancestors set a standard of success for the family, which counts professionals such as teachers and computer experts among its number.

"It's from those roots that a family gets the impetus to be successful," she said.

And Moses Lewis Gwynn Jr., 80, said youngsters could look to his late grandfather to learn "patience, frugality, endurance, thriftiness."

Debbie Edwards, 18, who came from Manchester, Conn., said during yesterday's hike that her ancestor's life sparks her ambitions. She wants to study hotel and restaurant management in college and said, "I know I can do it. I know I can accomplish more things."

The family members found their shrines yesterday in the stone foundations of an ancestor's home and barn and the remains of the bridge that once carried visitors across Long Green Creek. At the hill crest, they found the wooden posts that marked the entrance to the homestead established a century ago by the family patriarch.

According to a history compiled for the reunion, Joshua Gwynn bought his way out of slavery in 1847 at age 21 for $1,000 -- money earned working extra hours as a stonemason. He bought 200 acres in Glen Arm that became the family homestead, as well as property in Towson and Mount Washington. He married a school teacher named Margaret Jane, who was born in 1848, and raised a large family.

The Gwynns learned to read and write -- and made sure all their children did, too. That, said Baltimore County historian John McGrain, was unusual for the times.

McGrain said the fertile soil in Glen Arm produced large farms where slaves worked the fields. But not many of those slaves shattered barriers as Joshua Gwynn did.

Over the years, bits and pieces of the Gwynn family history had been passed around. But it wasn't until plans for the reunion began to take shape about a year ago that the descendants began serious research.

Roberts combed through census records from as far back as 1880. She said the reunion's history committee obtained information through family Bibles and documents, including the program for Margaret Jane's memorial service after her death in 1935 at age 86.

One family member showed up yesterday with a bag of handwritten deeds for the Gwynn homestead. One showed that Joshua bought more than 80 acres in 1890 for $1,000. He died in 1907, at the age of 81.

Family members believe Margaret Jane, from Ontario, may have been Baltimore County's first black school teacher. She was a musician at Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Long Green and wrote hymns and poetry.

As family members gathered along Harford Road for the hike to the homestead, they examined Margaret Jane's dictionary, dated 1861. Tucked inside was a handwritten example of her poetry. It was an ode to a son who died on Independence Day 1883 -- 10 days after he was born.

Our Baby

Half blown rose bud

Yet we miss thee

Soon thy little work was done

But in Heaven we hope thou'rt blooming

Little Aron darling son

The reunion, expected to attract more than 100 family members, was to include a banquet last night and a picnic today. But for many, the hike would be hard to beat.

Meeting shortly after 10 a.m., the group -- some two dozen strong and ages 4 to 83 -- set out over the river and through the woods.

"We all live in the city," said Talbert Gwynn, "but we're just as country as a load of green logs."

Some had grown up in one of the many homes that used to stand on the property -- land that was in the family until the 1960s when the state bought it for Gunpowder Falls State Park.

For these family members, it was a time for trading memories.

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