New round of a long effort to save an Annapolis building is set to begin

Untold history

January 02, 2007|By Nia-Malika Henderson | Nia-Malika Henderson,sun reporter

A short walk from Annapolis City Dock, where untold thousands of slaves were bought and sold, a free black man named John T. Maynard took a shed and made it a home.

It was 1847, and over the years, through the Civil War and Reconstruction, Maynard added a full second story, a porch, a brick chimney and furnished it with dozens of mahogany chairs, two feather beds and a marble-topped table.

He lived there, right across from City Hall, with his wife -- whose freedom he bought -- their three children and other relatives.

The house still stands, though time and weather have worn away the original roof and the hand-hewn wooden beams are termite-ridden.

And for the past 16 years, preservationists have been trying to save the white wooden home from what Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer called "demolition through neglect."

With state and federal grants, the city has spent about $350,000, mostly to complete structural renovations. About a half-million dollars is needed to finish, though it's still not clear what's being finished: a city office or an interpretive museum.

The next round of work is set to begin as early as this month.

Maynard's life and home offer a window into how middle-class blacks made a way in early Annapolis, a city where blacks and whites, slave and free, lived cheek by jowl.

His story, unearthed in the backyard and under the floorboards by archaeologists and by historians in the state archives, is that of a man who amassed a measure of material wealth and respectability at a time when blacks couldn't vote and most were bound to white masters.

"In Annapolis, we have the history of a lot of rich white guys, but the reality is that this was a city that was very much a community of middle- and working-class people," said Jeff Halpern, the architect working on restoring Maynard's house. "And this house is about the life of the average person and the life cycle of an urban working family."

Two families

The push to restore the home -- officially called the Maynard-Burgess House for the two black families who owned it -- comes at a time when other efforts are under way to save relics of workaday life.

State and local officials in Baltimore County recently announced plans to save a 19th-century schoolhouse for blacks.

And in Baltimore, the preservation board recently granted landmark status to a block of red-brick rowhouses built almost 200 years ago that also housed a school for blacks, effectively staving off demolition plans for at least six months.

"We don't tell the stories of our homes very well, yet we've got so much early history," said Moyer, who spearheaded efforts to save the home as an alderwoman in the 1990s. "And this is a house that has stories to tell."

The story typically told in Annapolis focuses on the Colonial era.

George Washington resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1783 at the State House. And the mansions of William Paca, Samuel Chase and Charles Carroll -- Annapolitans who signed the Declaration of Independence -- have been preserved and are open to the public.

In terms of African-American history, seemingly the most prominent narrative is slavery, some observers say.

A painting of Harriet Tubman, who ran north to freedom from Dorchester County and guided others out of slavery, hangs in city council chambers.

At City Dock, 1 million people a year visit a memorial to Kunta Kinte, an enslaved African who arrived there in 1767, and author Alex Haley, who described Kinte as his ancestor in his historical novel Roots.

And in September 2004, a handful of blacks in armbands and whites wearing chains staged a slavery reconciliation walk through Annapolis.

Such a focus on slavery and a kind of generic version of black history fails to recognize the history of Annapolis, where about a third of the black population was free and even slaves had a measure of mobility, some critics say.

"There's the Kunta Kinte memorial, but then what?" said Janice Hayes-Williams, a local historian who gives African-American-theme tours of Annapolis. "We got off the boat, but where did we go? As far as tourism, it brings a great interest, but it doesn't tell about blacks who built Annapolis and made it different. Right now, we don't take the story anywhere."

Maynard's life is the story of a working-class man who built a middle-class life.

Born free about 1811 in Anne Arundel, he built that life working at the City Hotel as a waiter, and after the Civil War as head chef at the Naval Academy.

About 1835, he purchased freedom for his wife, Maria Spencer, and her daughter, Phebe Ann Spencer, 3, from their owner, Maria Robinson.

The asking price was about $800.

A few years later, Maynard paid about half that to free his mother-in-law, Phebe Spencer, from her master, James Iglehart.

Maynard went back to Iglehart in 1847 to buy the outbuilding that would become the foundation of his family's modest wealth.

By 1858, the value of his $400 investment was $1,079, according to records.

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