Annapolis blacks' `hidden' history

Research: Two women find that African-Americans, largely unrecognized in the city's history, were business and property owners in the early 1800s.

April 17, 2000|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

To many, Annapolis in the 1800s was a town with grand Georgian mansions, white property owners and black slaves.

But a few months ago, amateur historian Janice Williams made an interesting discovery while researching the history of an African-American church in Annapolis: John Wheeler, a free black, owned land at 176 Main St. in 1803. The finding stunned Williams and her research partner, Joan Scurlock.

"You don't really think that there were black people walking around town, running businesses" in the early 1800s, said Scurlock, 57, a retired federal employee who lives in Annapolis. "But I think it's important for the black population and the white population to know. Growing up as a black person in this country, I never felt as if people like me were a part of the history of this country apart from as a slave."

And so began an odyssey to give part of Annapolis' history a makeover.

Since the discovery in December, Williams and Scurlock have spent days at the Maryland Hall of Records, combing through yellowing land deeds, and matching owners' names to free blacks listed on census records and on the membership log of an African-American church in the early 1800s.

The two intend to rewrite the history of a tourist city that has made an industry out of pride in its past. They hope to show that Maryland's state capital was not built solely on the shoulders of white property and business owners. They want to dig up what they are calling Annapolis' "hidden history."

Local historians say those in their circle have known for at least a decade that free blacks owned land in Annapolis in the late 1700s and early 1800s. But without research published on the subject -- and because visitors to the state capital usually are plied with extensive histories on prominent white citizens during the Colonial era -- the general public's perception has remained that blacks did not own land or businesses before the Civil War.

Jean Russo, director of research for the Historic Annapolis Foundation, said she is looking forward to seeing what Williams and Scurlock find.

"I think they're doing a wonderful job," Russo said. "They're trying to recover those people who have been lost in the historical record at large. This will fill out the story."

Williams and Scurlock started their research in January by pulling census records from 1800 to 1860 and a membership list of First Methodist Episcopal Church -- which had separate services for black and white Annapolitans in the early 1800s. They have matched about 10 free blacks to property records in that time period.

In 1799, a man named Thomas Folks bought land along West Street, just outside the gates of the city. In 1832, Thomas Folks' daughter, Charity, owned land along Franklin Street. In 1819, free blacks owned at least 3.26 acres in Annapolis. In 1860, a free black named William Bishop owned 11 houses on prominent downtown roads such as Church Circle and Cornhill Street, real estate assessments showed.

Some ran successful businesses during that period. Stephen Rummels owned a boot- and shoe-making store on Cornhill Street. Smith Price operated a stagecoach business in the early 1800s. And his son, Henry Price, grew up to sell groceries along Main Street.

"This was something I had never imagined," said Williams, 42, of Pasadena. "I grew up in Annapolis and all these places that we would walk by after school, nobody ever told us African-Americans had owned them at one point. I have a whole new perspective."

When they began studying wills, deeds, and the city of Annapolis' records showing ownership changes since the 1800s for several homes in the historic district, they began seeing why some black property owners fell through the cracks over time.

Although some African-Americans were listed as black or mulatto on property records, others weren't. So unless a historian recognized the name of a black owner, if race wasn't specified, the person was generally assumed to be white.

Scurlock speculates that recordkeepers did not list the race of well-known or fair-skinned blacks in the 1800s. Donna Hole, the city of Annapolis' head of historic preservation, said the discrepancies might have arisen when African-American landowners had white people represent them to file records.

Williams and Scurlock have found that black and white Annapolitans did not segregate themselves or create ethnic enclaves. Rather, they often lived side-by-side on the city's narrow streets. Some intermarried.

The amateur historians hope to publish their research after they've compiled a full list of black property owners during the 1800s. And they hope that their research can provide a fresh perspective on the life and times of an old city. "This shows that when the black population was given a chance, they did amazingly well," Scurlock said. "They owned property, they had good jobs. ... It was later that their situation became bad."

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