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Josephine Fenwick, valued independence


Josephine Agnes Fenwick, a retired domestic whose independence was an inspiration to her Bare Hills neighbors, died Monday of an apparent heart attack. She was 96.

She was born and lived her entire life in her family's 170-year-old, gray clapboard house on Clarks Lane. The house had no running water or indoor plumbing and was heated by a pot-bellied stove.

"She used to tell stories about the kindly Northern Central Railway locomotive engineers who slowed their trains and pushed coal off their tenders for her to pick up," said Mary D. Taylor, a friend and neighbor for 20 years. "Every time she heard a train she'd say, 'They're going to throw me some coal.' "

Despite advancing years, Miss Fenwick chopped kindling for her stove, carried water, walked to her mailbox, tended her garden, washed her clothes and entertained students from all over the United States, who were doing research on African-American history, with stories of the past.

Bare Hills, one of Baltimore County's oldest black neighborhoods which takes its name from the serpentine rock found there, was founded by the Rev. Aquila Scott who established St. John's Church in Ruxton, where he died in his pulpit in 1858.

Miss Fenwick, who never married, was born in 1898 in a taxicab in Washington, D.C., where her mother had gone to see the circus.

"She used to say it was a motorized cab and when we checked it out, we discovered that in 1898 there were two motorized cabs in the country, one in New York City and one in Washington," Mrs. Taylor said.

Miss Fenwick's father, Jim, was a well-known chef for a family on Roland Avenue. Her mother, Mary, who lived to be 100, was a midwife for families on Falls Road.

Denied entry into local schools because she was black, Miss Fenwick learned to read at a Methodist mission near Cross Country Boulevard. "She was proud of being able to read and write, and she read the newspaper every day and kept up with events," Mrs. Taylor said.

Miss Fenwick worked for years as a maid, first for the Roland Park Country School and later for private clients until she retired.

She was known for her red hats and beautiful complexion.

"When people asked her about her complexion, she used to tell them that she 'washed in God's water' that she gathered in her rain barrel," Mrs. Taylor, a retired Towson State University professor, wrote in an unpublished memoir.

"From my study window, I see her washing clothes. Her soft white hair encircles her head, curling around as gracefully as a halo. Against the fresh, spring green leaves of her rosebush her movements seem beautifully graceful," Mrs. Taylor wrote.

"She dips rain water from bright blue barrels with a yellow bucket and proceeds to wash what appears to be a blue skirt. Up and down she lowers it sudsing in the yellow bucket. The scene holds me spellbound. How can this 92-year-old, 98-pound frame lean over to ground level then rise up and down, over and over again?

"I remember her pride. How many times have I offered the use of my laundry and she always refused. It seems to me it would be so much easier. . . . She likes herself this way. Out of it comes whatever composure and peace she has," Mrs. Taylor wrote.

A consummate storyteller, Miss Fenwick would enthrall guests with stories of long-ago corn boils -- social events with food and dancing. At that time, black residents, who were not allowed to use the pavilion at Lake Roland, would organize their own corn boils and she would waltz to the music of a band that was brought by train from Baltimore.

"She told of the tragic drowning of her sister, who fell out of a canoe on Lake Roland on her 16th birthday and drowned. She used to laugh about how her mother would warn against her father fishing on the Sabbath, that if he continued, he'd catch the Devil on his line," Mrs. Taylor said.

When the new Falls Road bridge over the Light Rail was opened in 1991, it was Miss Fenwick who was asked by county officials to help cut the ribbon, being that area's oldest resident.

"She was feisty and independent and wished to live in her home until she died, and she got her wish," Mrs. Taylor said.

A Mass of Christian burial for Miss Fenwick was to be offered at 10 a.m. today at the Roman Catholic Shrine of the Sacred Heart, 5800 Smith Ave., Mount Washington, where she was a lifelong communicant.

She is survived by two nieces, Mabel Bradshaw and Theresa Breckenridge, both of Baltimore.

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