Residents united by common history Pumphrey district established by blacks after the Civil War

October 12, 1997|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Sheila Boyd doesn't live in Pumphrey anymore, but she still visits her mother there every day. And she still calls it home.

From her mother's front porch, Boyd can just about see where her Uncle Hank lives three blocks away in a faded pink clapboard home. Uncle Mel lives two blocks up the hill. Jane, her sister, is around the corner.

Her family has lived there since the early 1900s, the 34-year-old Boyd said.

Pumphrey is all about uncles, aunts, parents and sisters. It's roots, Boyd said, a place where she is connected and related. History has bound about 350 families tightly in this proud African-American neighborhood in northern Anne Arundel County.

It was one of the earliest communities established by free blacks and emancipated slaves in the county after the Civil War, according to local historians. Several Pumphrey residents trace their ancestors to African-Americans who settled in the area in the late 1800s through the turn of the century.

They've chosen to keep living there, Boyd said, and to keep the community alive. Many residents go to the same churches that their ancestors attended a century ago.

"It's kind of strange to have so many generations grow up in the same neighborhood," she said. "But for a lot of blacks, we don't have a [built-in] sense of community because everything was taken away from us.

"In the slave trade, so many family members and loved ones were sold that it's hard for anyone to have a connection to their ancestry," she added. "And when you're in a situation where you were robbed of everything, and you finally have a place that is home, that you can connect to, you don't want to lose that."

Louis S. Diggs of Catonsville, who's written two books on historic black communities in Baltimore County, said Boyd's sentiment is common. Diggs said many African-Americans today feel sad that young people know little about their ancestors and the communities they founded.

"A lot of people don't realize that in the old days, right after slavery, a lot of these communities had strength," said Diggs, who grew up in Sandtown, an old predominantly black neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore.

"Blacks had their own stores, businesses, civic groups. They had everything that the white communities had, but somehow you just don't read about it and youngsters just don't know our history."

Wayne Clark, the state's director of office and museum services and a North County historian, has traced land ownership in Pumphrey. In the 1700s, Caleb Dorsey owned about 10,000 acres in North County, Clark said. Dorsey chopped wood on the forested land to fuel his furnace company in Elkridge.

In the mid-1800s, Dorsey's firm sold most of the property to the white Pumphrey family, which sold it to African-Americans looking for a home.

The community got its name from Pumphrey Station, a Baltimore-Annapolis Railroad station there at the turn of the century. Many of the blacks who founded the community were farmers who brought produce into Baltimore for sale in the late 1800s, Clark said. By the early 1900s, Pumphrey residents had begun traveling by train into Baltimore to work. Many still do, Clark said.

"Pumphrey has a history that's one of continuity in the face of changing jobs and changing communities," Clark said.

"In more rural areas, kids leave because they need to go to the city to find jobs, but Pumphrey is so close to Baltimore City that as long as there's land for the children to build a house, they'll stay in the community."

Margie Creek, 44, grew up in Pumphrey, bought a house in the neighborhood in 1986 and last year opened a hairdressing shop on Belle Grove Road, the community's main street.

Others simply have continued living in homes built by their ancestors. The tiny home of Arnetta Beverly -- known to the community as "Miss Beverly" -- was built in the 1920s by her father, who spent three years hauling big concrete blocks by horse to Pumphrey.

"They just wanted to get out into the open and make this their life home," she said.

Beverly's home is surrounded by her pride -- a colorful garden plump in season with peppers, tomatoes, eggplants and flowers.

William Theodore Houston, 85, remembers moving to Pumphrey when he was 9.

"I was used to the city, but when I got out here there was a river, a pond, fishing and hunting. Oh, it was paradise. There weren't many houses out here. There were woods, old roads, ditches and a spring out back, and we used to carry buckets of water from there."

He fished and hunted for the first time. "In the city, there are a lot of temptations. When I was in the city, I was a bad boy. I'd go to the market and steal fruit and stuff like that. When my father found out, he sent me right out here.

"I guess I'll die right here," he said. "This will be my last place."

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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