News 4 days ago

Group seeks to showcase Frederick County's African-American history

The Frederick News-Post — Nancy Lavin The Frederick News-Post, Md.

Feb. 16--A Frederick judge in 1913 struck down Maryland's "grandfather clause" as unconstitutional.

Maryland was one of a number of states with constitutions that exempted white voters from poll tests and taxes as long as they could prove their grandfathers were registered to vote before 1869 and owned at least $500 worth of property.

The Frederick judge's decision let the 30 African-Americans who registered ahead of the city's June election cast their votes without taking these tests, according to a story published in The Evening Post in 1913.

It would be two years before the U.S. Supreme Court came to the same conclusion.

Frederick's revolutionary ruling is just one example of the county's rich African-American history.

At least 300 African-Americans from Frederick County fought in the Union Army during the Civil War, according to Mary Harris, an Adamstown resident who has researched local African-American history. Frederick was also home to the first African-American newspaper in western Maryland: The Frederick Hornet, first published in 1906.

Not all of the African-American history of Frederick is complimentary. A letter written in 1845 records the $300 sale of a 12-year-old boy to a Frederick County slave owner who would own him "for life," according to the terms of the sale.

Whether they are to be celebrated or scorned, the stories of African-Americans in Frederick County deserve to be memorialized, according to members of a group formed to promote local African-American history. They hope to do just that.

The African American Resources, Cultural Heritage Society (AARCH) in January submitted a letter of interest to Frederick County Public Schools, proposing to open a Frederick County African American Heritage Center in the former Lincoln Elementary School building. AARCH was one of seven nonprofits that responded to the school district's invitation for letters of interest on how to repurpose the now-vacant building known as "Lincoln A."

The school board last week prioritized four of the proposals it received for further exploration. AARCH's idea was not among them, but that doesn't mean the group is giving up.

An untold history

David Key, president of AARCH, explained his vision for the center as the "go-to" place to learn about African-American history in Frederick.

It would highlight "not just the national issues but the everyday people in Frederick, their stories," Key said. "It adds a whole new perspective to Frederick County, one that's been missing."

The space would serve in part as a museum, displaying the hundreds of artifacts collected through AARCH that document centuries of African-American history in Frederick. It would also be a resource for students and researchers -- fostering research within its walls as well as sponsoring field work to continue documenting the still-unrecorded elements of African-American history in Frederick.

"Because of how things were at the time, a lot of the African-American history was never documented or published," Harris said.

Individual members currently store most of the artifacts in their homes. Boxes of newspapers, photographs and relics of African-American history, including some from Key's family, fill a corner of the garage next to his home south of the city of Frederick.

Members offer educational lectures and presentations throughout the county. Parts of their collections have been displayed temporarily at other museums and community buildings.

"Every February, we're booked solid," said Key, referring to the national designation of February as Black History Month.

On Saturday, AARCH hosted its first African-American History Fair at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Frederick. The fair featured 20 tables of artifacts, photos and documents showcasing the history of local African-American families.

Harris, who showcased her family's six-generation history of agriculture in Frederick at the fair, called it a "great success."

But the multitude of artifacts and knowledge the group has amassed remain relevant outside of a single month or event. That's where the Heritage Center comes in.

"The Heritage Center is a place where people can simply have the opportunity to hear each other's stories," said Ingrid Palmquist, a city resident who recently joined AARCH to help plan its heritage center. "The experiences that a person of color in Frederick can share are probably very different than what a white resident's experiences would be."

And, as the nation faces severe divides on political and social ideologies, it's also timely. Key, 74, likened the current political climate to the one surrounding the civil rights movement.

"For the first time, the general masses are feeling what African-Americans felt," he said. "The good thing, I think, is the country's in a period of rethinking and uniting in a way that might not have happened otherwise."

The continued popularity of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in D.C. also speaks to the public's interest in learning about black history. Key, who toured the museum as part of a private event held before its September opening, said he hopes the Heritage Center could attract a similar interest, albeit on a smaller scale.

Turning goals into action

Creating a Frederick County African-American history museum was among the top priorities of AARCH when it was founded in 2001. The letter to the school district is the first formal effort the group has taken toward achieving this goal, Key said.

The primary obstacle has been funding. Although he wasn't sure of an exact cost, the funding needed to open a heritage center is much more than the AARCH could spend without help from a community partner or government, Key said.

"And it's not just getting a place, it's the maintenance," Key said.

The group's 24 members are all volunteers. It ended 2016 with $10,515.42, according to a financial report included in the group's letter to the school district. AARCH is not required to disclose yearly revenue, expenses and other information typically required by the Internal Revenue Service for tax-exempt organizations because the group's annual gross revenue is less than $50,000.

Key was hopeful Lincoln A would provide the space and the support needed to finally launch his long-awaited vision for a heritage center. Even using an empty classroom to store and categorize artifacts, would be a start, Key said.

Nothing is off the table yet, though, according to Brad Young, president of the county Board of Education.

In an interview Monday, Young said he felt the board was looking for proposals that benefited both the school district and a nonprofit or charity. He added that he wasn't sure if AARCH's proposal fit this requirement as well as some of the others.

But Young also acknowledged the benefits of teaching local African-African history to FCPS students. Students learn about the civil rights movement, for example, but may not know about the race riots that extended to Frederick, Young said.

"I think it's important that our kids understand that happened right here in Frederick," he said.

Follow Nancy Lavin on Twitter: @NancyKLavin.

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