Volunteers working to bolster the story of African-American history in Harford County

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Harford woman gains greater connection to fellow African-Americans through historical research

Roxann Redd-Wallace grew up in Harford County and witnessed a major historic event as a student moving from a racially segregated school to integrated public schools in the mid-1960s, but she still learned little else – either in school or from her own family – about African-Americans' contributions to Harford County and its history.

"Absolutely not, schoolbooks didn't include us," Redd-Wallace, who is black, said.

A resident of Abingdon who grew up in the Abingdon and Edgewood areas, Redd-Wallace attended the segregated Central Consolidated School in Hickory from first through fifth grades. She transferred to Deerfield Elementary School after Harford County Public Schools were desegregated in 1965, then attended Edgewood Middle School and graduated from Edgewood High School in 1970.

"I don't think the story of what African-Americans have contributed to Harford County has been that great," Redd-Wallace said.

She has, however, been part of a community effort in recent months to flesh out that story as one of 10 volunteer contributors working on Campaign 42's weekly pamphlets about African-American history in Harford County.

"I feel a closeness, more camaraderie with my race," said Redd-Wallace, who has spent the past few months working on the pamphlets. "It brings a sense of pride when African-Americans talk about their accomplishments."

At least 24 weekly issues of Campaign 42's series of pamphlets have been published since January, featuring material based on hundreds of interviews and research of documents and family genealogies, but for the author, they are still a small part of a rich and diverse story.

"We've just touched the tip of the iceberg," Bel Air resident Jerome Hersl Jr., the author of the pamphlets, said.

Hersl, 60, and his wife, Barbara, who are both white, are part of Campaign 42, which was started was to help more women and minorities get elected to public office in Harford County.

Hersl stressed Campaign 42 – the number refers to the uniform number Jackie Robinson wore when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke Major League Baseball's color line in 1947 – is not a rigid organization, but a movement.

"People just come and go and help the movement when they have time," he said.

The weekly pamphlets are a Campaign 42 project that is separate from the political side. Hersl and his fellow volunteers, such as Redd-Wallace, are researchers, interviewers and writers.

"It is extremely interesting, and it shows that African-Americans have made a significant social, economic and spiritual contribution to Harford County, and they deserve a seat at the table," Hersl said of the group's findings.

Divided on race

Harford County has a long, divisive history on matters of racial equality.

At the outbreak of the Civil War about 200 slave owners lived in the county, many in the southeastern portion, but many other Harford homes were stops on the Underground Railroad for fugitive slaves heading north to freedom.

Hersl noted the story of the Underground Railroad "is very rich here in Harford County; it hasn't been fully told, but it needs a lot more research."

Whites and blacks from the county fought in the Civil War, the whites on both sides.

The county's only native born Medal of Honor recipient in its history, Alfred Hilton, was an free African-American Union Army sergeant mortally wounded in an 1864 battle near Richmond. John Wilkes Booth, the stage actor and Confederate sympathizer who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, was born on a farm east of Bel Air where his family lived off and on until the mid-1850s.

Institutional segregation was part of local life well into the 20th century. A memorial to Harford's World War I military dead, which sits prominently in front of the armory on Bel Air's Main Street, designates the race of the small number of "colored" men listed.

Until the early 1960s, local newspapers, The Aegis among them, routinely noted in news article if a person was "Negro" or "colored," often in headlines, too. Many local restaurants refused to seat blacks, movie theaters had segregated sections, the local hospital had segregated wards.

Harford County Public Schools did not integrate until the 1965-66 school year, more than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down school segregation in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

According to the 2015 U.S. Census estimates, 13.6 percent of Harford's population of 250,000 is African-American, up from 12.7 percent in 2010. About 18 percent of the public school system's 37,500 students are black.

"There is some African-American history [recorded], and it's here and there, and there needs to be more, plenty more, and so we took on the project," Hersl said.

Each pamphlet is distributed electronically via email, and print copies are distributed to churches, fraternal organizations and the people the researchers interview.

Printing, distribution and transportation costs are covered out of the researchers' own pockets, Hersl said.

Political push

Hersl said the project started as Campaign 42 was pushing to get African-American candidates to run for office in Havre de Grace – the mayor and all six members of the City Council are all white.

Curiously, the first African-American woman elected to any political office in Harford County was Mildred Stansbury, who served on the Havre de Grace City Council in the 1960s. The city council, however, has not had a black member since the early 1980s.

The county was once viewed as a leader in Maryland in electing women to municipal offices, the state legislature and to county offices; however, the current seven-member County Council elected in 2014 does not have a female member for the first time since 1978.

Only two African-Americans have ever been elected to a county government office, one of them being current Councilman Curtis Beulah, and none have ever represented Harford in the Maryland General Assembly.

There is one African-American serving on the Aberdeen City Council, Melvin Taylor who was elected last year, and one on the Board of Education, Jansen Robinson, who was elected in 2014.

At least one African-American has served on the school board since the mid-1960s and others have previously been elected to council seats in Havre de Grace and Aberdeen. Bel Air's five-member Board of Town Commissioners, however, has had just one African-American member in its history.

When trying to solicit prospective city council candidates in Havre de Grace last year, Hersl said he read about a man named John Leo Jones who lived in the city during the early 20th Century

"There wasn't much said about Mr. Leo or who he was – he was the unofficial black mayor of Havre de Grace," he recalled. "My thought was, oh my goodness, there's a lack of African-American history [being told] in Harford County."

Help from multiple sources

The Campaign 42 pamphlet group has assistance from a four-member committee composed of women with ties to the county's prominent African-American Peaker family – Evelynn Clayton, her cousin Ann Waters, and Sarah Smith and Sarah V. Robinson.

The committee developed when Hersl met Clayton at Ames United Methodist Church in Bel Air.

"She was loaded with history," he said of Clayton, who introduced him to Waters and then brought in Smith and Robinson.

"A lot of ideas come from that committee, and a lot of people that I interview come from that committee, as well," Hersl said.

Copies of published pamphlets are in a drawer at the headquarters of the Historical Society of Harford County in Bel Air, which Joan Wiggins, a resident of Belcamp and a Campaign 42 reviewer, pulled out during a recent visit.

Wiggins, who is black, grew up in Philadelphia. She retired from HCPS in 2007 after 42 years as an elementary and middle school music teacher and an administrator. She was an assistant principal at William Paca-Old Post Road Elementary School when she retired.

"All I do right now is proofread the pamphlets before they are actually sent out," she said.

She got involved in the pamphlet project about six months ago when she was volunteering at the Historical Society and was introduced to Hersl. They discussed the project, and Hersl asked her if she knew people in the area.

Wiggins said the pamphlet is "easy to find; it's very readable."

"He's done a great job in getting people to open up about those things that happened years ago," she said of Hersl.

Wiggins is also a member of Ames United Methodist Church – she knows Clayton, whom she called "a wealth of information," and Smith through the church. Wiggins serves as the church historian, and she said she would like, when she has more time, to conduct research for the pamphlets on black-owned businesses in Bel Air and black family genealogy in the county.

"There's just so many facets to the relationships of black families," she said, noting many people are related through their mother's and father's sides of their families.

Campaign 42 researchers have also received extensive help from Historical Society staff and volunteers as they search through books, school records, back issues of newspapers and death certificates.

"We're doing the same thing we would do for anybody who has an interest [in history]," Jim Chrismer, a Historical Society board member, historian and editor of the Harford Historical Bulletin, said.

Chrismer said information about Harford's African-American history is "the kind of information that's scattered here, scattered there."

Hersl said he hopes the pamphlets will become a book, and Wiggins said they are a good starting point for people researching their family histories. She encouraged younger people to get involved.

"We're just starting it now, but they could take it and really run with it," Wiggins said.

Dembytown story

Redd-Wallace looked through a white binder at the Historical Society with Henry Peden, a former president of the Historical Society board who is a society volunteer, a genealogist, local historian and author.

They found the death certificate of George Washington Demby, whose three sons were among the 12 founding families of the historically black community of Dembytown in Joppa.

The community was founded in 1917, primarily by members of the Demby and Gilbert families, who moved from their farms in Gunpowder Neck after the federal government acquired their property, and many other properties in the southeastern part of the county, for Aberdeen Proving Ground and the Edgewood Arsenal.

The arsenal, which was developed along Gunpowder Neck for research and development of chemical weapons and protective gear for soldiers, is part of Aberdeen Proving Ground today.

George Washington Demby is profiled in the 24th edition of the pamphlet, released June 17. He was born in March 1834, and he died in December 1924 at age 90, according to his death certificate.

Demby was born in Kent County and later migrated to the Gunpowder Neck, where he and other black residents farmed land owned by Maj. Gen. George Cadwalader, a grandson of Brig. Gen. John Cadwalader, who was an officer in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and a close friend of the Army's commander, George Washington, according the pamphlet.

Jerome and Barbara Hersl and Redd-Wallace recently interviewed a longtime resident of Dembytown, 89-year-old Gladys Demby McKenzie, in her home on Dembytown Road.

One of McKenzie's granddaughters, 27-year-old Evette Waters, also of Dembytown, recorded the interview on video. The interviewers spent about two-and-a-half hours talking with McKenzie and Waters.

McKenzie, who married into the Demby family and is a mother of 10 children, talked in depth about the ups and downs of her life in Harford County.

"That's life!" she exclaimed. "The bitter and the sweet all get together."

Her 90th birthday is Nov. 18.

"God has been good to me," she said. "I'm really happy, I'm ready to go when He calls me."

Send an email to harfordcampaign42@gmail.com for more information on the pamphlets.

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