History's mystery

Discovering Frederick's African-American heritage sites

  • Laboring Sons Memorial Ground at Chapel Alley and 5th St. in on the downtown Frederick self-guided walking tour of African-American Heritage Sites.
Laboring Sons Memorial Ground at Chapel Alley and 5th St. in… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
March 16, 2011|By Donna M. Owens, Special to The Baltimore Sun

It was a bright, chilly morning when the Greyhound bus deposited me at the tiny depot and train station in Frederick. My daylong itinerary would require equal parts walking and sleuthing in this more than 250-year-old city.

My mission: to traverse historic streets lined with well-preserved Victorian, Federal and Greek Revival buildings and to examine a trove of black history that few outsiders know exist. By doing so, I hoped to discover new truths about American history in a region that helped create it.

Frederick, tucked amid the mountains of Western Maryland with a skyline graced by church spires, has a pedigree that's the stuff of history books.

Settled in the 1700s by German and English immigrants, and later, Scotch-Irish emigres, the city and county are linked to a plethora of seminal events: the French and Indian War, American Revolution and the Civil War.

Both Union and Confederate soldiers marched through Frederick. The Battle of Monocacy, credited with helping to save the nation's capital, was waged on farmland just outside of town.

As history unfolded, people of African descent — whose deeply embedded roots here date back centuries — played roles both large and small. African iron experts at nearby Catoctin Furnace made cannonballs used in the American Revolution. Black men and women served in military, medical and other capacities when the Civil War reached Frederick's doorstep.

But such contributions have often been unknown, ignored or obscured, according to some longtime African-American residents.

"The young people don't know the history, and some don't really have much interest," says Mary V. Harris, 71, who sits on the board of the Frederick County Historical Society and also leads tours for the AARCH Society, which promotes local African American resources, culture and heritage. "I believe it's time," says the retired educator, "for everyone to know."

Like many locales nationwide, Frederick has sought in recent years to paint a more accurate, inclusive version of America's complex canvas, even while confronting a sometimes prickly racial past.

Yet change and progress have occurred. And over the past year or so, tourism officials, history experts and community volunteers have worked jointly on an African-American Heritage Sites tour, published an educational pamphlet and promoted other efforts designed to illuminate Frederick's black experience.

"We're seeing an increase in visitors asking about African-American history and interpretation," said John Fieseler, head of the county's tourism council, who greeted me at Frederick's splashy new visitor center, slated to open in early April. "The tour and brochure are great tools to learn about these sites," he said.

I was eager to learn more. So after a hearty breakfast at the popular eatery Isabella's in downtown's 50-block historic district, I began my exploration.

On the trail

Navigating the African-American heritage trail in Frederick is fairly easy, thanks to the revised black history brochure. It features points of interest, photos, an illustrated map and a suggested itinerary. For now, travelers can pick one up free at the old tourism office on East Church Street, which is what I did.

That's where I also met Chris Haugh, a historian and special projects manager for the tourism council, whose background includes documentary filmmaking. He would be my guide along the trail.

As we began to walk, Haugh explained how race, history and culture have impacted this city of some 65,000 people.

"While making the documentary, I spent a lot of time digging into Frederick's past and interviewing African-American residents," he said, noting that some of his subjects have since passed away. "Along with many others, I felt these stories were important and needed to be told."

Historians report that the 1860 Census listed nearly 5,000 free blacks in Frederick County; about 1,200 lived in the city. These early black residents labored on farms and in brick yards, in the town's canning factories, and were skilled craftsmen, such as carpenters. Women were often domestic servants, while some free blacks owned businesses.

We began our stroll at All Saints Street, one of the city's historically "colored" neighborhoods. Before desegregation in the 1950s, it was a commercial, social and religious hub, complete with beauty parlors, banks, grocery stores and churches.

The corner of East All Saints Street and South Market Street was also the site of the old Baltimore & Ohio train station. It was there in 1862, the year after the Civil War commenced, that President Abraham Lincoln delivered an impromptu speech to a crowd of black and white soldiers and civilians, thanking them for supporting the Union.

Our next stop was the onetime residence of Ulysses Grant Bourne, a black physician who came here in 1903, according to the brochure. He later founded the Maryland Negro Medical Society and a 15-bed black hospital, also on the tour.

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