Black history on Web

Photos, stories detail life in W. Md.

February 27, 2009|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,joseph.burris@baltsun.com

Lorraine Wells was about to give up. More than 10 years of searching for clues about the now-deceased father she never knew while growing up in Cumberland had produced nothing.

Then the 46-year-old Oakland, Calif., resident got a call from her brother Jeffrey, who lives in Cumberland, about a Web site that chronicles Western Maryland's black history. The Allegany County African American History collection comprises more than 400 images, includes information dating back 200 years - and was created by an amateur historian who happens to be white.

Dozens of volunteers helped Albert Feldstein of Cumberland create the site. In addition to etching Western Maryland black history for the world to see, the site has enabled those who have moved away to reconnect with their past.

Wells logged on to the Web site and spotted her father - a tall, slender Allegany High School basketball player, in a photograph chatting with another player over a bottle of Pepsi. Previously, Wells had come across only one other picture of her father, one that was too blurred to see him clearly.

"When I saw the photo, I said, 'Wow, that's what he looks like,' " Wells said. Scouring the site further, she discovered that she had a cousin on her father's side who lives in San Diego.

Wells is among many former and current Western Maryland residents who have marveled at the site since its launch a year ago. Believed to be the most comprehensive collection of African-American history in Western Maryland, the site compiles images and documents in 14 chapters that cover such topics as churches, sports, entertainment and the military. It is part of Western Maryland Regional Library's history Web site, www.whilbr.org.

"I'm impressed. I know the subject matter is worthy of it," said Dr. David T. Terry, executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.

"There is a rich history in terms of African-American culture in the western part of the state, and it seems that there was a communitywide embracing of the idea," Terry added. "I know Mr. Feldstein, and he's very much about the region's history and seems to be very broad in terms of the perspective of history he embraces."

Feldstein, who since 1980 has produced more than 30 books and videotapes on Western Maryland history, said at least three other people had talked of producing a work on local black history. But two of them moved and one died, he said.

"It came to a point where I felt that unless someone did something to document this stuff, get the pictures, the narratives and text together, it wasn't going to be done," said Feldstein, 59, a program manager for the state Department of Planning.

Initially, Feldstein was reluctant to lead the effort to create the site because he is not an African-American. Those concerns were dashed when the community got behind him, submitting photos and telling stories about what it meant to grow up black in Western Maryland.

The site features newspaper ads seeking help finding runaway slaves; photos of the Davis Tourist Home, a 14-room house where Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway and other black artists who had been turned away from hotels stayed; and photos of Sumner Cemetery, the oldest black cemetery in Allegany County, where African-Americans who served in the Union Army during the Civil War are laid to rest.

The Web site has been posted as a link on those for the Maryland State Archives and the Reginald Lewis Museum. The site is linked on Blackpast.org, a Seattle-based online reference guide.

"It's one of the best, as local history sites go," said Quintard Taylor, founder of Black past.org. "Also, when most people think of African-Americans in Maryland, they think about the Baltimore area and the Eastern Shore area. The Western Maryland foothills are not identified with African-Americans, so that's part of the attraction of the site, the uniqueness."

Stories of family, church and community life abound. There are also many tales of racism and discrimination.

Delores Gates Thomas, 75, recounted a childhood story: Though she lived within five blocks of two elementary schools, she could not attend either because they were for whites only. Instead, she and other black children had to walk 30 minutes across town to the black school - from kindergarten through high school.

Thomas said the students had to cross two railroad tracks; often they had to wait until the rail cars were loaded and moved before they could cross. Two white store owners would open their shops early during the winter months to allow the youngsters to warm up.

"Some cold mornings now, I think about it. I think about how we would get so cold we couldn't bend our fingers," said Thomas, who lives in Washington but still visits the area, maintaining the Cumberland home that has been in her family since the 1800s.

"There's one thing about Cumberland that I would say: The segregation was kind of schizophrenic," Thomas said. "When we would come home from school in the evening, we would all go to the west-side playground, where the black children and the white children would play together all evening. But we couldn't go to school together."

While reliving old stories is sometimes difficult, Thomas said, the accounts need to be told and preserved.

"There are things on there I wouldn't have known that other people have contributed," she said. "And I'm sure that there are things on there that I have said that other people didn't know."

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