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Annapolis family learns more about Black history by discovering their ancestry through family photos, documents

Annapolis resident Damani McMillan doesn’t remember learning much about Black history in school and it wasn’t until recently that he felt he could connect to the bits that he did learn.

He said it’s been inspiring after his dad started digging into their ancestry beyond the generations they knew like McMillan’s grandmother, Civil Rights activist and Bates High School teacher Sylvia McMillan.

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“I have this newfound energy, love of life,” Damani said. “... to really dig into it with my dad and put the pieces together about history that I’ve read in school and to know that a family member was a part of that and to see what type of person he was and see the type of person my grandmother was and see what type of person my dad is, you see that type of person is in all of us.”

The McMillans were only able to learn more about their ancestors’ history because of family documents like the memoir and family photographs then apply it to what was happening at the time. It was only recently the McMillans learned one of their ancestors fought in the Civil War when they found documents that his wife applied for his pension after he died.

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“(Learning about Black history) was very limited and I think that’s part of the reason African Americans have to dig into their own history and once they dig into their own history, they’ll dig into more history of our people,” Damani said.

Anne Arundel County resident, Shajid McMillan traced his family history back to Juneteenth. George G. Ross, Jr., pictured, Shajid McMillan's Great Grandfather, wrote a memoir about his life - "Sketch of Life of George G. Ross of Denver, Colo. (Written by him in 1963, shortly before he died)"
Anne Arundel County resident, Shajid McMillan traced his family history back to Juneteenth. George G. Ross, Jr., pictured, Shajid McMillan's Great Grandfather, wrote a memoir about his life - "Sketch of Life of George G. Ross of Denver, Colo. (Written by him in 1963, shortly before he died)" (Jeffrey F. Bill/Capital Gazette)

His great great grandfather George Ross Sr. was born in South Carolina and joined the Union Army when he was 15. He then was emancipated from slavery in Las Vegas, New Mexico.

“He fought for his freedom. He didn’t wait for it, he fought for it, he picked up a gun and said ‘show me where,’” said Caldwell “Shajid” McMillan, Damani’s father.

The end of the Civil War was the beginning to the abolition of slavery in the country. And although these veterans received some privileges, they were also victims of the Jim Crow era.

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Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed people enslaved in Confederate states but as Juneteenth celebrates the news making it to Galveston, Texas two years later, Shajid believes his great grandmother didn’t know about the news until even after then.

Anne Arundel County resident, Shajid McMillan traced his family history back to Juneteenth. Pictured is George Wallace, a slave, Shajid McMillan's Great-Great Grandfather, married Vina Ross.
Anne Arundel County resident, Shajid McMillan traced his family history back to Juneteenth. Pictured is George Wallace, a slave, Shajid McMillan's Great-Great Grandfather, married Vina Ross. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Capital Gazette)

Vina McMillan was an indentured servant to a Quaker family in New Mexico. She met Ross Sr. while he was fighting with the Union. He died shortly after leaving the Army at age 32 leaving Vina and their three children.

Their son George Ross Jr., born in 1879, wrote in a memoir that his mother raised them to follow strict Christian beliefs due to her experience with the Quaker family she worked for.

“The family was in constant contact with the God-fearing earnest Christians who molded their lives in this orphan family,” wrote George Ross Jr. “The family listened, was encouraged and helped.”

George Ross Jr. got an early start in the newspaper industry. In his memoir, he referred to himself as a “newsboy” and said he was exposed to the best of Las Vegas, New Mexico. It was a tight-knit community in which people feared God and helped the less fortunate, according to Ross.

George Ross Jr. was one of the first Black lawyers in the state before he came to Maryland. He and his wife, Gertie Nichols Ross, published the Denver Star, from 1913 to 1964, and founded Denver’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1915, to combat racial injustice in housing and public places.

The Rosses had Sylvia McMillan who became a community leader in Anne Arundel County. In 1965, she founded and was a member of the first board of directors of the Community Action Agency, according to her 1989 obituary in The Capital. Under her leadership, the agency operated programs in the areas of health, rural housing and transportation, senior citizens programs, training, employment and minority business development.

“I hope this story encourages others that look like me to look into their ancestry and not just assume all of our ancestors were just slaves and had no history,” Damani said.

Anne Arundel County resident, Shajid McMillan traced his family history back to Juneteenth. George G. Ross, Jr., Shajid McMillan's Great Grandfather, pictured at right, bought and published The Dever Star newspaper.
Anne Arundel County resident, Shajid McMillan traced his family history back to Juneteenth. George G. Ross, Jr., Shajid McMillan's Great Grandfather, pictured at right, bought and published The Dever Star newspaper. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Capital Gazette)
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