Freetown concerned about losing legacy

Younger generation selling land, moving

February 07, 1999|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

The southern banks of Marley Creek may not look like much -- a few scrub pines, brush and trees -- but to escaped slaves and free mid-19th century blacks, it was sacred ground.

It was a place where blacks could own property and build a home, even before slavery ended, and where runaway slaves were slaves no more, according to local lore.

Within the past five years, drugs and violence in its public housing complex have brought Freetown notoriety. But to many descendants of the settlers, the Glen Burnie neighborhood bordered by Mountain Road and Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard is still venerated.

FOR THE RECORD - In Sunday's Anne Arundel County edition, the caption for a photograph accompanying an article about Freetown incorrectly described a statue of a Civil War soldier. The statue depicts an unidentified soldier, not a founder of the community.
The Sun regrets the error.

"It ain't for sale," said Rodell Turner Sr., who owns several tracts in the community his forefather, William Turner, helped found between 1850 and 1880. "When we die, our children belong here."

Many residents are concerned that their history has been lost as younger generations have sold their property.

James Spencer, a free-born black, bought the first tract near Marley Creek on Dec. 26, 1845. During the next two decades, William Howard, Nathan Owens, William Turner, William Hall and Abraham Franklin bought neighboring tracts, according to county records. Spencer and Howard enlisted in the Union Army, U.S. Colored Troops, and fought three years in the Civil War.

`No slave owners'

By the 1880s, African-Americans owned nearly 1,000 acres between Marley and Stony creeks, including Brewers Island in Marley Creek. The property is bounded by Marley and Stony creeks, Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard and Mountain Road.

The Spencer property was in the western section along Marley Creek, the Hall property in the northern portion around Solley Road, and the other property owners clustered near Mountain Road, in the heart of Freetown.

Slaves from neighboring farms escaped by crossing what they called "Freedom Bridge" over Marley Creek, according to oral tradition and a 1952 local history.

"The area is called Freetown because no slave owners were on it," said Helen D. Eldridge, whose grandmother was one of the settlers. "On the property itself, nobody was owned as slaves."

Several roads carry the family names, as do some of the neighborhoods that have been built there since. But time and development have encroached on the historic area. As old-timers died and desegregation opened the doors to other neighborhoods, families sold large portions of land, sometimes for a fraction of what it was worth, neighbors say.

`Everybody would help'

Freetown is now a dot on the county map, a cluster of old, sturdy brick houses, and a group of families who remember life in a close-knit community of farmers.

"Everybody would help out," said Eldridge, 74. "My grandmother would help the lady next door who didn't have no milk. She gave the baby milk from her breast."

Turner remembers his parents going out in winter storms to make sure single mothers and widows had enough to eat. Said Helen Johnson, whose family moved to the area in 1945, "They were just dependent on each other."

Independent community

Residents were largely independent of the white communities that surrounded Freetown.

Most families raised hogs or chickens for meat, along with fruit and vegetables. Land records show that the first school was built in 1870 on a half-acre along Marley Neck Road near Freeman Shores Road "to be used for the education of freed men and children irrespective of race or color."

They raised money and built two other schools before the county built Freetown Elementary. The community also built several churches. At least one -- Hall United Methodist Church -- was built on land donated by the Hall family.

The Freetown Community Association, started in 1954, was responsible for bringing roads and public water, and alerted the county to the need for public and senior housing programs, according to Willie Johnson, who spearheaded the campaign.

Whites "wouldn't lend us money, and at the same time they wouldn't rent us apartments," Johnson explained.

He took his message about the housing problem to Joseph W. Alton Jr., Anne Arundel's first county executive, in 1965. Freetown Village was built about 10 years later.

Drug problems

Drug problems there smeared Freetown's name for a while, but trouble decreased after police set up a substation and conducted drug raids and stings in the mid-1990s.

Another community wound -- opened by children who turned their back on the land that was their heritage -- can't be healed.

"Most of the kids have moved out of the community and don't want any part of it," Helen Johnson said.

"Some of them did great damage by selling their property, I think," said Turner. "We got a lot of good people in Freetown. I don't know a place today I'd rather live."

Pub Date: 2/07/99

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