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Walking tours focus on black history in the state capital

Minority GroupsHistorySlaveryCultureLocal Government

Annapolis -- In this city of maritime culture, politics and the Naval Academy, where history and tradition are practically embedded in the narrow cobblestone streets -- something new is afoot.

Literally. A unique series of walking tours that highlight African-American history promises a more culturally inclusive view of Maryland's capital city, and the region. It is what some experts term authentic history -- a full account, warts and all.

It means that people visiting, say, the Charles Carroll House, won't just learn about the lone Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. They will also hear about his slaves, and what recent archaeological digs reveal about them.

Even a stop at the State House may spark debate. One statue there honors Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, whose infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision denied blacks citizenship; nearby is Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to sit on the high court.

A glossy new brochure -- Guide to African-American Heritage in Annapolis & Anne Arundel County -- offers seven "heritage" itineraries, encompassing everything from urban living to sprawling plantations. The guide includes historic homes, museums, parks, memorials and research facilities, along with maps and trip planners.

Historians, tourism officials, state preservationists and community activists are among those behind the push. Many believe these expanded tours will have an economic benefit while finally validating information once relegated to the margins.

"African-Americans have been a part of this community for 350 years," says Janice Hayes-Williams, a local historian, who owns the tour company Legacy Promotions. "We were farmers, seamen, skilled workers, soldiers. ... Before the Civil War, Maryland had the country's largest community of free blacks. They built homes, schools, churches and businesses. They're fascinating stories."

Much of what is known has been culled from written records, surviving structures, cultural artifacts and the like.

A stroll through Annapolis reveals tales that run the gamut from slavery and religion to affairs of state. Museums honor such famous Marylanders as abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass.

Yet countless lesser-known men, women and children are represented, too -- a nod to Annapolis' population in the 1800s, then one-third African-American.

Explore "Little Harlem," a once-thriving entertainment district near Clay and Washington streets; Asbury United Methodist Church, the city's oldest black congregation; and the pioneering Stanton School, built in the 1800s.

Not only are local and state history illuminated, but the walks through time also powerfully chronicle the evolution of America itself.

Around the late 1660s, thousands of enslaved Africans were brought to Annapolis and the county. In 1783, as the Founding Fathers convened at the State House for the Continental Congress, the slave trade flourished at nearby City Dock.

It is believed that Kunta Kinte arrived in 1767 aboard the Lord Ligonier, a story told in descendant Alex Haley's epic novel and 1970s miniseries, Roots.

Today, a bronze statue of Haley, a story wall and a 14-foot granite compass form a memorial at the site on Market Street. One million visitors come through every year; before his death in 1992, Haley walked these streets.

Next month, marks the 16th annual Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival, which celebrates Haley's famous ancestor and runs Aug. 10-11 at the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds (see accompanying story).

Last year's event drew more than 20,000 people -- hailing from across the country and representing a wide spectrum of the African Diaspora.

"It grows and grows," says Leonard Blackshear, original chairman of the festival and founder of the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation.

He believes such activities will someday bring the region widespread prominence for its African-American history.

"Just as immigrants flock to Ellis Island, I envision a time when African-Americans and people from all over the world will come to Annapolis," says Blackshear. "They'll possibly learn about their roots. It will provide an opportunity to talk about reconciliation and healing. The city will serve as a powerful symbol."

What to see

Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial (at City Dock and Market House 410-841-6920): Nestled against the Chesapeake Bay, the thought-provoking memorial is said to be the only one in the United States that commemorates the name and place of arrival of an enslaved African.

Stanton School and Community Center (92 W. Washington St., 410-263-7966): Replicas of original classrooms are featured in the city's first black school. Built in the 19th century and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, today it provides computer training and other outreach.

Asbury United Methodist Church (87 West St., 410-268-9500): Despite many changes, the site marks the city's oldest black meeting house, built in 1804. The land was purchased from Smith Price, a free black man.

Banneker-Douglass Museum (84 Franklin St., 410-216-6180): Erected in 1876, the former Mount Moriah A.M.E. Church is the state's official repository of African-American culture. It's named for scientist Benjamin Banneker and Frederick Douglass.

Matthew Henson plaque (Maryland State House): Honors the explorer who helped Adm. Robert Perry discover the North Pole in 1909. Another statehouse statue commemorates Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

William H. Butler House (148 Duke of Gloucester St., near City Hall): A former slave, Butler became a wealthy alderman (elected in 1873) and the first African-American to hold public office in the state.

U.S. Naval Academy (Gate 1, Annapolis, 410-263-6933): Slaves and free blacks worked in the "Yard." Former slave Benjamin Boardley conducted research in the academy's chemistry department in the 1850s and '60s and invented a working steam engine for a sloop-of war. Wesley Brown was the first African-American graduate, in 1949.

Alex Haley Museum (27 Francis St., 410-990-1070): A Haley relative runs this museum, which celebrates Roots, explores slavery and its impact, and offers healing tours.

Annapolis National Cemetery (just west of Westgate Circle on West St.): Established in 1862, contains remains of black soldiers from various wars, including the Civil War.

Local tours

  • African-American Heritage Audio Tour, Historic Annapolis Foundation. 410-268-5576.
  • Discover Annapolis Tours (Vistor's Center). 410-626-6000.
  • Legacy Promotions Tours/Living History Presentations. 410-280-9745.
  • Three Centuries Tours of Annapolis. 410-263-5401.
  • Watermark Cruises. 410-286-7600.Getting there From Baltimore, take Interstate 95 South to Interstate 895 South (tunnel) to Interstate 97. Or you can take I-95 South to the Baltimore Beltway (Interstate 695 South) to Exit 4, which is I-97 South. Take I-97 to U.S. 50 and go east to Exit 24, Rowe Blvd. Follow signs to Annapolis historic district.More information
  • Annapolis & Anne Arundel County Conference & Visitors Bureau. 26 West St., 410-280-0445, www.visitannapolis.org.
  • Maryland State Archives/Hall of Records. 350 Rowe Blvd., 410-260-6400.
  • Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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