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Howard County Emancipation commemoration illustrates the past

Bells will peal and special events unfold in Howard County on Saturday as part of a statewide effort to mark the 150th anniversary of Maryland's stepping up to the plate in a big way on Nov. 1, 1864.

That's when it officially became the first slave state in the country to voluntarily free its slaves, over a year before the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery across the nation on Dec. 6, 1865.

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But wait a minute. Hadn't Abraham Lincoln already freed the slaves nearly two years earlier with the Emancipation Proclamation?

President Lincoln's decree on Jan. 1, 1863 — in the midst of the American Civil War — only freed slaves in rebellious states that had seceded from the Union. Maryland wasn't one of them, so slavery remained legal until the state legislature adopted a new constitution outlawing slavery.

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Many people don't understand the actual impact of the Proclamation, said Shawn Gladden, executive director of the Howard County Historical Society and adjunct professor of American history at Howard Community College.

"The Emancipation Proclamation was more of an effort to make sure that the war itself was about slavery," he said. "It didn't free as many slaves as it increased the number of African-American recruits [able to join the Union Army and Navy], and Lincoln needed men badly."

The sesquicentennial of Maryland's momentous action will be celebrated on its actual date at six sites in Howard County and one in nearby Catonsville, as well as in Annapolis, Baltimore and counties across the state.

A full slate of local ceremonies and exhibits will relate not only to the events leading up to and including the state's freeing its slaves — such as the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by slaves to escape to free states — but also to the unfortunate aftermath of setting enslaved men free, such as the advent of segregation.

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The bell-ringing that took place Nov. 1, 1864 will be re-enacted from noon to 1 p.m. in 20-minute shifts at the Howard County Historical Society Museum, in the former First Presbyterian Church on Court Avenue; at St. Paul Catholic Church, on St. Paul Street; and at the Firehouse Museum, Church and Main streets.

"Bells pealing means something big and good and unusual is happening," said Cathy Eshmont of Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks' Heritage Program, which oversees 20 historic sites and is responsible for organizing the county's activities.

Sending a sonorous signal from a church steeple was one of the only quick methods of disseminating important news to townspeople in the mid-19th century, Eshmont said.

That was especially true, she noted, for those who were anticipating the news most — the state's slaves, whose status was in limbo as the war was drawing down and who wouldn't have been capable of reading a newspaper account.

In Howard County, where the county seal depicts an oversized shock of wheat and a hand plow with a tobacco field as backdrop to underscore the county's agrarian roots, the vote was against emancipation. Not surprising, Gladden said, given that the county's many large plantations relied on slave labor to operate.

"I could make the argument that Howard County had one of the largest slave-holding populations," he said. "One of the reasons was that Howard — along with Anne Arundel and the Eastern Shore counties — was farm-based, and we held on to our agrarian economy."

Eshmont said the referendum to adopt a new state constitution didn't pass on the first vote, and only narrowly passed the second time after the unusual step was taken to permit Union troops in Maryland to vote.

"Lincoln was interested in what was going on in Maryland," she said. "Maryland was arguably the most important border state since it surrounded our nation's capital, and it basically wasn't allowed to secede" because the city of Washington would have been left defenseless.

Freed slaves were recruited to join the U.S. Colored Troops to fight in the Civil War. Eshmont has combined historical society records with independent research projects done by students at Centennial and Wilde Lake high schools on pension records to compile a list of 70 black men from Howard who served in the military.

She is still working to dig up more names, and will read aloud all that she has uncovered as part of a 2 p.m. ceremony at the Ellicott City Colored School, Restored, on Frederick Road at Rogers Avenue. An invocation will be offered, and there will be a performance by the Florence Bain Center Gospel Choir.

Decatur Dorsey, who was born in Howard County in 1836, is among those names. A member of the 39th Infantry, he received the Medal of Honor, the military's highest decoration, for courage under fire at the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, Va.

Dorsey — whom Eshmont called "Howard County's most decorated veteran" — served as the standard bearer, leading the regiment by carrying the flag into battle and therefore unable to carry a gun, she said.

There's a plaque at the Ellicott City Colored School that commemorates Dorsey's bravery and tells the story of the former one-room schoolhouse that was built in 1880 and used until the 1950s.

"Oral tradition bears out the story that returning veterans helped build the school," Eshmont added. "Though there's no real proof that happened, it makes sense that it would have."

Emancipation Day ceremonies will be moving as well as educational, Gladden said.

"This is a good opportunity for people to understand all that was happening in Howard County and to learn more about the emancipation of slaves in Maryland," he said.

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