Examining Eastport's black community

NEIGHBORS

February 14, 2000|By Douglas Lamborne | Douglas Lamborne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A LONG OVERDUE spotlight is about to be cast on a largely ignored aspect of Annapolis life -- the African-American community in Eastport, which is the subject and title of an exhibit opening Sundayat Mount Zion United Methodist Church at 612 Second St.

The exhibit is the result of two years of work by a committee of about 20 members under the direction of Peg Wallace, chairwoman of the Eastport Historical Committee, who likes to make sure everyone gets the credit they're due.

"Marita Carroll is the person with the longest memory," said Wallace. "She taught in the segregated school on Third Street and was the first African-American teacher to teach in the integrated Eastport Elementary.

"We got great help from Jean Herndon, and Frank Brown brought a lot of his own research into the project. There were many others who made major contributions."

The black community was unusual from the start, she said. The Rev. Rufus Abernethy, former pastor of Mount Zion, remembers in the show's text: "The black families in Eastport were different from blacks living in Annapolis. As a working-class people, Eastporters were very land conscious. Many of them owned their homes. Some were even landlords."

The "early settlers" came from Southern Maryland farms during the second half of the 19th century and tended to buy lots along Back Creek. One of their first accomplishments was to establish a church, Mount Zion Methodist Episcopal, and a school. The cornerstone for the church was laid in 1896 at the Second Street site.

Devotion to the church continues to this day, surviving racial segregation and the impact of integration. The occasional Mount Zion picnic, with games, food and conversation under tents, can look like a throwback to another era, the old-time church social.

Segregation demanded ingenuity in many areas of life, chief among them higher education. Many young people had to leave the state to attend college. Families scrimped and saved; occasionally, the church chipped in with scholastic aid.

"It's remarkable when you think about it," said Wallace. "Two, three generations off the farm and they're sending their kids to college."

In addition to their school and church, blacks had their own sources of amusement, most notably at Fourth Street and Chester Avenue. The Davis Lounge served as a gathering spot for adults and the nearby Davis Sweet Shop was a popular hangout for kids.

Until the past quarter-century, Eastport was largely a blue-collar community. Black men tended to be self-employed as boat-builders, carpenters, farmers, laborers and watermen. Women worked as maids and caretakers. Crab-picking and oyster-shucking attracted both genders.

When you encounter someone who lived in Eastport decades ago -- before the sport utility vehicles and the flash of yuppie money -- you're apt to hear them mention "family" over and over. They'll talk about being naughty at school and being disciplined by neighbors on their way home, before facing their parents. They were being watched -- and watched over.

"When I was growing up," said Marita Carroll, "Eastport was a closely knit neighborhood with families feeling the need to help other families -- like that African proverb that says it takes a community or village to raise one child.

"I think most of the families felt the responsibility for helping to raise all of the children in this area. I am talking about African-American families, and then later on as conditions began to change, life changed."

Public viewing of "The African-American Community in Eastport" will start from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday and will continue during the same hours Thursdays through Sundays until March 5 at Mount Zion.

The exhibit then will be remounted a block away at the Barge House Museum, 133 Bay Shore Ave., where it will stand for the rest of the year.

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