City history in a hurry

In 10 days, researchers excavate a site in an African-American neighborhood

June 18, 2006|By JAMIE STIEHM | JAMIE STIEHM,SUN REPORTER

The old Chambers family homestead in Parole -- the site of an archaeology and heritage open house today -- is a house that Faith Wright Commodore, 50, says holds her dearest memories.

The unusual site, next to the Mount Olive African Methodist Episcopal Church at 2 Hicks Ave., will be open for free to visitors curious to know more about everyday life in the stalwart African-American community in the early 20th century, University of Maryland organizers said.

"Great-granny was born in this house. That's my family church. This is home," Commodore, a seamstress, said last week as a team of 20 students dug neat squares across a 2-acre yard that has belonged to her family for more than a century.

Seeing the young people unearth fragments of her kin's lives made her recollect simple pleasures long gone from the landscape.

"My uncle raised pigeons over there and all my cousins [were] close -- I don't think we ever knocked on anyone's door," she said. "You could climb a tree and have a meal -- full of apples, peaches, pears. I remember flowers, fruit, bushes, trees, the smell of lilacs. I love lilacs."

Then there was always Sunday dinner for the extended family, sometimes with the cooking done and the table set outside, in the "summer kitchen."

Parole, an Annapolis neighborhood bordered by West Street, became a cohesive center of African-American life after the Civil War, during which it was a camp for detained war prisoners. In 1930, census data showed that many of the 130 residents were employed as domestics, laborers, barbers, oyster shuckers, farmers, porters, laundresses and teachers.

Matt Palus, an anthropology doctoral student and the Parole project's associate director, said the area's double identity posed a choice for researchers. But despite the mystery of where Camp Parole was located, the focal point for the College Park summer field project was clear: studying signs of African-American family life over generations.

"Do you do the Civil War history, even though nobody knows exactly where Camp Parole was? Here we made an explicit decision to look at the African-American community that continues to this day," Palus, 35, said.

Time is short. During the 10-day dig, everything that can be recovered, sifted and analyzed -- a bone from a butchered animal, a piece of hotel china, a brick from the summer fire pit -- will go to the lab run by Mark P. Leone, a College Park professor who has led Archaeology in Annapolis projects for more than two decades.

Later this year, the land is expected to be turned over as the site of the church's planned Mount Olive Community Life Center. But Leone and the late Leonard A. Blackshear, former president of the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, agreed that a heritage and artifact-based study of Parole on that family land would enrich the base of records and archives.

"In the time that we have, we will recover a representative sample of what's here," Palus said.

For example, he pointed to the outlines of a square stain: "We think that's a pit for an outhouse. For us, that's rich data of everyday materials."

A large, now-vanished vegetable garden indicated the family was able to largely live off the land and that there was some left for "truck farming," Palus said, meaning selling goods in town or on the county roads. "That's a real important economic activity."

Mark Barron, 34, a graduate student in American studies, said during a brief break, "We're learning the context of where we are, the presence of this historically vibrant African-American community."

Classie G. Hoyle, an Annapolis city council member who represents Parole, was born in the area in the 1930s, and noted the 1902 dog tag that was found. She and the Mount Olive AME Church pastor, the Rev. Johnny Calhoun, are among those who dropped by the site last week, lending memories and encouragement.

For those who deal in mute artifacts, the living memories and voices are welcome.

"Only rarely do circumstances work out this way," said Palus. "...On Sunday [the public] will tell us what's important."

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

The heritage site, next to the Mount Olive AME Church at 2 Hicks Ave., Parole, is open today from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

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