On the Shore, a town apart

Residents recall the quiet self-sufficiency of San Domingo, a village settled by free blacks long before the Civil War

November 19, 2007|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

SAN DOMINGO -- The way Newell Quinton sees it, the old elementary school isn't a symbol of segregation. It's a reminder of the freedom that has endured since the first free black men settled here long before the Civil War.

Quinton, 63, grew up in this rural village just a 20-minute drive from Salisbury. After retiring from the Veterans Administration, he headed home five years ago and built a house on land once owned by his great-grandparents.

Now, he spends most of his time piecing together San Domingo's history and working on community projects such as restoring the Sharptown Colored School.

"We were totally separate, a family town where we were all related," he says. "We were nearly self-sufficient. And if we were poor, we didn't know it. We didn't want for anything."

San Domingo dates its history to the 1820 census, which lists nearly 20 "free Negroes" as living in the area, most believed to have been seamen from the Caribbean.

The four-room schoolhouse, which opened in 1919, was one of about 5,000 built for black students around the country with money provided by Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck and Co., and black educator Booker T. Washington. Land, wood and labor were donated by residents.

The second floor, home now to a small Masonic lodge, was designed to provide a community meeting place and entertainment venue. The school closed in 1961.

Today, volunteers are replacing windows and tearing off aluminum siding for more authentic wood framing. Quinton helped organize the John Quinton Foundation, named after his great-great-grandfather, to receive donations for the renovation and other projects. The nonprofit is awarding scholarships to a half-dozen college-bound students from San Domingo and gathering oral histories.

"I think you could compare San Domingo's vanishing culture with others we hear about in this area - Chesapeake Bay watermen or a-rab street vendors in Baltimore," says Joshua Phillips of Preservation Maryland, which provided $5,000 for school roof repairs. "In some respects, things have changed so little there since the 1950s."

Quinton tells of an unincorporated village of 1,000 residents, linked by a network of sandy, one-lane streets and dirt paths. Telephone service, at best, was an eight-family party line. Neighbors and relatives shared farm produce and whatever else they had.

He says his boyhood in San Domingo is a sweet memory of farm chores, schoolyard softball games and Methodist revivals. "I remember the summer church camp meetings," he says. "It seemed far as a child, but we'd go around to different churches in the area all summer. It was a social thing."

It was the era of segregation on the Eastern Shore, a time of increasing civil rights turmoil throughout the country. But Quinton says the community of farm laborers, domestics and saw mill workers he grew up with in the 1950s kept to their close-knit way of life.

When it came time for spring plowing, two neighbors would team their mules and work their fields. Around Thanksgiving, families pitched in for the daylong job of slaughtering hogs and preparing everything from hams to scrapple for the winter.

"There was a hidden world back before integration," says Richard Bland of the Maryland Historical Trust. "Many of these communities have disappeared."

Though San Domingo lives on, one change is the number of wood-frame farmhouses that have been torn down, burned or neglected as owners built modular or mobile homes that are cheaper to maintain. Others moved away, Quinton says, leaving property unattended and overgrown. About 800 people live in the village today.

Rudolph Stanley, 59, a math teacher at Wicomico High School who still lives in the community, says the civil rights movement seemed distant in the lives of San Domingo residents. "Civil rights didn't have a direct effect on me, at least not until I went away to college," he says.

"I was in the last graduating class of the segregated Salisbury High in 1966," he says. "I could have gone to Mardela Springs High two years earlier, but I wanted to finish it out." Stanley, like his cousin Quinton and other family members, attended Morgan State University.

Quinton's sister Bernadette Cannady works as a librarian in Salisbury and still lives in San Domingo. She was a sixth-grader when Wicomico County schools were integrated.

"People my age were on the edge of segregation and integration," says Cannady, 50. "Our parents were afraid for us, but we went and it was just school. Life went on as usual."

Quinton says one unintended result of integration is the mobility it created for blacks to pursue jobs or educational opportunities in urban areas.

"I think it is almost irresponsible for people not to understand and appreciate what our forebears had to go through," he says. "With today's movement of people, it's too easy to lose the roots of where you came from. There's a strength in knowing."

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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