Old City, Fresh Look

Jane McWilliams' big new history of Annapolis, 12 years in the making, weaves an inclusive tale

  • Jane Wilson McWilliams, pictured in the Maryland State Archives, has just seen her 479-page tome, "Annapolis: City On the Severn," published. McWilliams, an independent historian, has worked on this labor of love since 1999.
Jane Wilson McWilliams, pictured in the Maryland State Archives,… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
May 27, 2011|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

She remembers having "wonderful" history teachers growing up in 1940s and 1950s Annapolis, and she has explored and chronicled this area's past for more than 40 years.

But as historian Jane Wilson McWilliams researched her massive, colorful and comprehensive new book, "Annapolis: City on the Severn," she sometimes found herself stunned to encounter truths about her hometown she'd never run across.

If you did your high school history homework, for instance, you know the 15th Amendment to the Constitution (passed in 1870) guarantees every citizen the right to vote regardless of "race, color or previous condition of servitude" (read: slavery).

But did you know that the powers that be in Annapolis violated that law in 1908, denying most of the city's black men the right to vote for seven years?

McWilliams didn't.

"I had never heard a single word of any of that before, and it shocked me," says the author, who covers those developments in Chapter 7 of her book — a lavishly illustrated volume the region's scholars are calling the first comprehensive history of the state capital since the late 1880s.

"There have been many, many books on the history of Annapolis, but most have been mere crutches for glossy photographs," says Greg Stiverson, president of the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation and onetime head of the Historical Annapolis Foundation. "Amazing as it seems, the last attempt [at a comprehensive history] was Elihu Riley's 'The Ancient City' in 1887. [McWilliams' book] fills a vacuum that has been there for more than a century."

McWilliams, a former employee of the state archives who has written four previous books, worked full time on this one for 12 years. Stiverson calls it "a monumental achievement that will stand for decades," and Orlando Ridout, an architectural historian for the state, says "in a week's time, it has already established itself as the bible."

If that's the case, it's not just because "Annapolis: City on the Severn" boasts fresh material, contains hundreds of previously unpublished photos and other art, or has a surprisingly reader-friendly style, given its vast detail and scholarly approach (90 of its 479 pages are for endnotes).

It's because it weaves a tale of the city's past, from 1649 through the 1970s, that unites long-disparate strands in a way no book before it has.

As McWilliams' labor of love — a publication by the Johns Hopkins University Press and the Maryland Historical Trust Press, funded mainly through grants by the Maryland Historical Trust began hitting local stores and Amazon.com last week, she took time out from a slate of appearances to speak with The Baltimore Sun.

How did you get interested in local history?

I grew up in Bay Ridge, a block from where I live now. My father was with the electric company, and he traveled all over the county. My mother was a librarian who drove one of the early bookmobiles. At the dinner table, they'd talk about what was going on in the county. It fascinated me.

Some of your colleagues call your book a "life's achievement." How did it all start?

Well, as long ago as the late '60s, I worked with Ed Papenfuse [now the state archivist] on a project called the Annapolis Lot Histories. [We had] a tax assessment list from 1783, and we used it to determine who owned what in the "old city," who lived where, what the value of every property was between 1718 and 1800.

That material is in the archives of the Historic Annapolis Foundation. People still use it to research their properties.

Scholars say it was useful in creating a basis for a history of the city. Did it bring history to life?

Oh, you could investigate all sorts of things: Who was where, doing what? What sorts of businesses were on which side of town? I can tell you that [Declaration of Independence signer] Samuel Chase lived on West Street for a while, in what is now the Rams Head Tavern building. He never lived in the dream house he built, the Chase-Lloyd House [on Maryland Avenue]. He didn't marry money, you know. His finances were never too great.

How did you get the idea to do "Annapolis, City on the Severn"?

It wasn't my idea. It came from the Annapolis History Consortium [a local group of about 100 professional and amateur historians]. Back in the 1990s, people were expressing concern that the last comprehensive history was Elihu Riley's.

There have been many good neighborhood histories and other histories that explore particular topics. But I remember Eric Smith, the cartoonist and columnist for the Evening Capital, writing a column in March of 1999 saying, "Why don't we have a decent history of the city? This is ridiculous." The consortium agreed. I was crazy enough to say I'd do it.

How do you begin a project this big?

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