The small Glen Burnie neighborhood of Freetown has always been more than a place to live to its residents. Homeowners have regarded it as hallowed ground, a destination for runaway slaves in the mid-1800s who bought land there, and a refuge from a segregated society during the next century.
But for 20 years, community members have watched the historic African-American town shrink as residents have sold property to developers.
Those who remain voice the typical complaints about development: more traffic, fewer trees, crowded schools.
But the latest subdivision proposal has residents worried that something less tangible -- the Freetown name and its rich history -- may be lost to future generations of African-Americans.
"We don't want that many houses in our area," said Lillie Caldwell-Walker, a county teacher who grew up in Freetown on land her father bought in the 1930s.
She, her parents and her eight siblings live in homes in a compound-type arrangement on family property adjacent to the proposed 32-home project called Mountain Valley.
"It's just devastating to me to see the land going. They're chiseling away all around, and pretty soon there won't be a Freetown," she said.
Caldwell-Walker was among a group of Freetown residents who showed up last month at a county zoning hearing to express concerns about the proposed Mountain Valley subdivision. The Baldwin Corp. of Arnold plans to build on 11.5 acres near Freetown Road and New Freetown Road.
Plans call for homes priced between $150,000 and $200,000. A descendant of the late Sherman Bouyer, once a prominent landowner in the community, owns the land.
Residents say that the name "Freetown" doesn't appear in any of the surrounding or proposed developments.
"It could be called Freetown Valley; there are no mountains around here," said Walter Caldwell, who is Caldwell-Walker's brother.
"We've tried to preserve as much as we can, but it seems to be eroding real fast," said Willie Johnson, president of the Freetown Improvement Association.
Free blacks established Freetown in the 1840s, buying land across the Marley Neck peninsula.
By the 1880s, African-Americans owned nearly 1,000 acres.
According to local legend, slaves from neighboring farms escaped to Freetown by crossing "Freedom Bridge" over Marley Creek.
Donna Ware, the county's historical site planner, said that Freetown remained a farming community until after World War II, when suburban development began to encroach.
Now the community is encircled by subdivisions, including Sun Valley, Timberglade and Shannon Square.
Ware said the community is right to worry about losing its identity.
"Freetown isn't some name picked out of the sky," Ware said. "There are deep roots there, and it's got a great history.
"It's partly the community's responsibility to let developers know that this is important to them and it still stands for something today."
The developers of Mountain Valley said they're willing to consider other names.
"We'd be very open to anything that might fit the area better," said Patricia Baldwin, a vice president of the Baldwin Corp.
The name of a subdivision typically changes during the development process, she said. "We usually try to find a name that fits the history."
Caldwell-Walker remembers that Freetown Elementary School almost lost its name in the 1970s when residents of the Sun Valley development lobbied for the name Sun Valley Elementary.
"The people in Freetown petitioned against it and were able to save the name of the school," she said. "They had worked too hard for it."