African-Americans Out of the Shadows


Take a walking tour of Annapolis and you'll hear about the four Marylanders who signed the Declaration of Independence, see the room in the State House where George Washington resigned his military commission and pass by some of the finest examples of Georgian-style architecture in the country.

What you won't hear much about, however, is the lives of Annapolis' African-Americans, who by the late 18th century made up a full third of the city's population.

This spring, the Historic Annapolis Foundation will set out to correct that omission with a new African-American Heritage Walking Tour. The tour, modeled after a popular taped tour of the city narrated by Walter Cronkite, allows visitors to walk leisurely through Annapolis and listen to a cassette that describes the people and places that were important in the black community.

Dr. Jean Russo, an historian at Historic Annapolis Foundation, allowed me to preview the tour's script, and two things were apparent right away. The first is that a number of outstanding African-Americans lived in Annapolis, although their accomplishments have been largely ignored in the history books. The second is that despite a rich history, few landmarks of the black community remain.

Did you know that William Bishop, the son of an Irish immigrant and a slave mother, was a real estate investor who by 1860 was one of the town's wealthiest residents? His grandson, also named William, was a founder of Annapolis Emergency Hospital, now Anne Arundel Medical Center. But don't look for Mr. Bishop's house on Church Circle. The site is occupied by a NationsBank building.

Wiley H. Bates was a prominent black businessman and alderman who successfully fought for a high school for black students. Don't look for his house, either. It was torn down for a courthouse addition years ago.

The old African Church and a number of other institutions in the former 3rd Ward also are gone, demolished during urban renewal and replaced by county offices and a parking garage. While many of the buildings important in the African-American community have been destroyed, the tour nevertheless will provide visitors a glimpse into the lives of the city's black residents.

The first stop on the tour is the City Dock, where visitors learn about the slave ships that unloaded their human cargo there. Most famous of these unwilling passengers, of course, was Kunta Kinte, whose story was told by his descendant, Alex Haley, in the book and television series, "Roots."

The next stop is a Victorian home at 148 Duke of Gloucester St., which was owned by William Butler, a prosperous carpenter who became the first black man elected to state office in 1873 when he became city alderman.

Nearby, at 163 Duke of Gloucester St., visitors can still see the house of John Maynard, a free black who bought the freedom of his wife, daughter and mother-in-law and worked as a waiter at the City Hotel.

Next to the courthouse, visitors can see the old Mount Moriah Church, saved by dedicated preservationists who fought Anne Arundel County's attempts to demolish the building. This Gothic building, once so integral to the lives of Annapolis' African-Americans, now houses the Banneker-Douglass Museum.

And the old school for black students, now the Stanton Community Center at 92 Washington St., remains. One of its alumni, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, was chief surgeon at the Freedman's Hospital in Washington and in 1897 performed the world's first successful heart operation when he sutured the wound of a stab victim.

As with the Cronkite tour, the African-Heritage Walking Tour includes the obligatory walk to the State Capitol, but visitors stop at the plaque commemorating Matthew Alexander Henson, the Charles County native who became the first man to reach the North Pole. The tape also tells of Mathias de Sousa, an indentured servant who became the first black in the Maryland legislature.

At St. John's College, visitors learn that it was the first private college in Maryland to admit blacks. And the tape describes the experiences of black midshipmen at the Naval Academy, and tells how harassment forced James Conyers, the first black to attend the academy, to withdraw before graduation.

My only reservation about the tour is to wonder whether it wouldn't be better to include the information about the lives of African-Americans in all of the city's walking tours.

Dr. Russo explained that the tours focus on different eras. The African-American heritage tape concentrates on the post-Colonial period, where the other tour concerns the Colonial and Revolutionary War era. Time is also a factor; both tours last about an hour.

But I still look forward to the day when visitors to Annapolis don't have to specify whether they want the black tour or the white tour, but they can take one tour that captures the diversity of this rich city.

Liz Atwood is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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