Annapolis marks 300th - repeatedly

City's birthday won't go uncelebrated, even if exact date is source of debate among residents

December 14, 2008|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,julie.scharper@baltsun.com

The celebration of Annapolis' three centuries as a city began more than a year ago with a formal ball. It continued with more than 100 events, including a scholarly symposium, a town crier contest, a pub crawl and a dog show. Last month, a chorus premiered an oratorio commissioned for the occasion.

But when is the actual birthday of Maryland's capital? Is it Nov. 22, the date historians say the Queen granted the city a charter - marked in 1908 with a bicentennial parade down King George Street?

Is it coming up on Wednesday, which has been decreed "Annapolis Charter Day" under state law, although no events seem to be scheduled for that day?

Perhaps it was Dec. 3, when about a dozen people gathered to sip hot cider as politicians read the charter aloud - no easy feat, considering it begins with a 2,418-word sentence. Or did the 300th birthday actually occur years ago?

"The birthday? I wouldn't get into that," said C. Ashley Ellefson, an expert in Colonial history who spoke at a symposium on the city's history in June. "The business of a birthday is one of the problems that people really can't agree on."

When asked last week, more than a dozen residents and visitors walking along the capital's paving stones said they couldn't name the city's birthday.

"I don't have a clue," said Andy Stapleton, a bartender at Acme Bar & Grill and a lifelong Annapolitan. "We should know, but we don't."

This year was the third time in the past century that Annapolis celebrated its 300th.

In 1949, the postal service issued a three-cent stamp in honor of the "Annapolis Tercentenary," marking three centuries since the first people of European descent settled on the banks of the Severn.

In 1994, a year of festivities called "Annapolis 300" highlighted the anniversary of the city's designation as state capital.

This year's revelry, Annapolis Alive!, commemorated the 300th anniversary of the city's charter. The committee organizing the celebration gives, in its literature, yet another possible birthday, Aug. 16.

On that date in 1708, Gov. John Seymour issued a charter declaring Annapolis a city. But historians say, the governor, in a political power grab, took away the ability of citizens to choose the city's General Assembly representatives.

After some wrangling, the charter - allowing for a select group of white male property owners to vote - was signed into law on Nov. 22 and ratified by the General Assembly on Dec. 17.

The charter, which made Annapolis the state's first incorporated municipality, said the city "excelleth all other townes and ports in our said province." It sketched out a plan for city government and decreed that two fairs should be held annually to sell "cattle, wares, and merchandizes" and that people heading to the fair should not be subject to "arrest, attachments or executions."

The charter's most important legacy is that it established that power should be shared by the governor and the state legislature, said Ellefson, a professor emeritus at the State University of New York, Cortland.

It is unclear how Annapolitans marked the first hundred years of the charter, but bicentennial festivities drew thousands in November 1908, according to The Sun. Bands marched, "crashing out the resounding notes" of "stalwart Christian airs," and upwards of 3,000 people paraded through "streets so densely packed that passage was nearly impossible." At an evening celebration, "confetti appeared upon the streets at an early hour," "staid and dignified matrons forgot their dignity" and "the omnipresent feather tickler was offered for sale by itinerant vendors" to conclude what the newspaper described as "the greatest day in the history of Annapolis."

On Nov. 22, 1958, Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin and Mayor Arthur G. Ellington donned white wigs and Colonial garb to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the charter.

The 2008 celebration has included scores of events to prompt discussion of the city's rich history and diverse inhabitants, rather than a single climactic parade, said Chuck Weikel, executive director of the nonprofit organization that coordinated Annapolis Alive!

"We've almost de-emphasized the date of the charter celebration and emphasized more of the events that lead up to it," Weikel said. "There's a lot more going on here than just the story of the charter."

Celebrations of the charter's tricentennial included the presentation of a ballet commemorating a local dancing instructor who broke through racial barriers, exhibits on the history of African-American residents, artwork on public buildings and the installation of historical markers. A shallop race, a show of dog breeds popular in the 1700s and a tour of historical pubs were among the more creative events. As part of a continuing exhibition, the home of William Paca, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, has been decorated to represent several eras in the city's history.

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