Sharing the African-American legacy

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Annapolis boasts tributes to Thurgood Marshall, Matthew Henson and other prominent figures

February 08, 2009|By Stephanie Citron | Stephanie Citron,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Annapolis is well-known for its historic vibe. The cobblestone streets, the well-kept Colonial homes, the maritime ties - they're just a few of the highlights that make the city, one of the earliest settlements of Colonists, a destination of choice for history buffs.

Nevertheless, even some historians are largely unaware of the significant role that Maryland's capital city has played in the progression of African-American history.

Annapolis was a prominent port for slave ships in the 18th century. Thousands of slaves were brought to its shores between 1770 and 1775. The Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial at Annapolis' City Dock marks the debarking port for Roots author Haley's enslaved African ancestor.

Though almost every home had a slave, Annapolis did permit slaves to purchase their freedom, and in 1777, Quakers outlawed slavery among their members. The African-American population grew, and by the 19th century, free and enslaved African-Americans made up one-third of Annapolis' population.

By 1850, 45 percent of Annapolis' African-American population was free and about 40 percent owned property (designated in plaques on those sites around the city). Here and there, evidence of the black community's enterprise was sprouting up. The Patrick Cragh house was the site of a successful black business, and 91 East St. was the location of the first black public school. In 1850, a slave named Ben Bradley invented a steam engine for the U.S. Naval Academy.

Through plaques and signs around the streets of the tiny city, the story of the evolution of African-Americans can be understood. Still, in the Naval Academy nearby, another chronicle had yet to unfold.

For Jim Jackson, the search began with a homework assignment. The year was 1971. Jackson was one of a handful of African-American midshipmen at the Naval Academy when his history professor gave the class an assignment to "choose a famous naval person to research and write about."

He decided to write about a prominent black admiral. He was certain his paper would be a success, until he discovered that although some African-Americans had been named naval officers as early as 1944, no black had advanced to the rank of admiral by the beginning of 1971.

"I couldn't believe I had joined a military where no blacks had successfully gone all the way through the ranks," Jackson said. He was forced to alter the theme of his paper to "African-American contributions to the Navy."

Later that year, Capt. Samuel L. Gravely was promoted to admiral, becoming the first African-American to achieve flag rank in the Navy. Jackson then began a personal project of collecting information about blacks who gained ranking officer status in the U.S. Navy.

Decades later, Jackson, a retired naval aviator and commander, produced the nation's only known exhibit about African-American naval officers. Titled Seaworthy: The Navy's Black Admirals, it premiered last fall at Annapolis' Banneker-Douglass Museum and recently was featured at Anne Arundel Community College.

The exhibit features profiles of each of the Navy's 39 admirals, and describes their accomplishments. It highlights the 14 who graduated from the Naval Academy. Included are Rear Adm. Michelle Howard, the first Naval Academy female graduate to achieve flag rank, and Cmdr. Wesley Brown, the first African-American to graduate from the academy.

Last May, the Naval Academy opened the Wesley Brown Field House, a state-of-the-art athletic facility.

Today, the beautiful, white domed State House, built by slaves, stands in the center of Annapolis. Presiding in the front of the nearby Court of Appeals is a statue of attorney and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, under the words, "Equal Justice Under Law." Marshall's most famous case, Brown v. Board of Education, led to the desegregation of schools nationwide.

Nearby is a plaque honoring Matthew Henson, the black explorer, who - with Adm. Robert Perry - discovered the North Pole in 1909. Annapolis National Cemetery (near Westgate Circle) includes graves of black soldiers dating to the Civil War.

Like those who preceded him, U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black, the first African-American Naval Academy chaplain, worked to break barriers. One of the things he did was launch the Naval Academy's first ministry for women, just as the Navy began admitting women.

He declares that today's high achievements by black students at the Naval Academy are only possible because "we stand on the shoulders of those before us."

After all, Black says, "Rosa sat, so Martin could stand, so Obama could run."

if you go

Attractions

Annapolis National Cemetery (near Westgate Circle) includes graves of black soldiers dating to the Civil War.

Banneker-Douglass Museum, 84 Franklin St., 410-216-6180; bdmuseum.com. Hosts exhibits about black history in Annapolis.

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