Telling History


CUMBERLAND -- When the women from the Baltimore museum arrive, Miss Romaine Denson Franklin smells like a flower and looks as pretty as a porcelain doll. She's even more promising in person than any artifacts or antiques yet assembled for the new African-American collection.

The museum's registrar and exhibits manager help her into the car and drive her to dinner at the Rocky Gap Lodge. The next morning, they will pick her up for church. It's hugs every time they meet, kisses every time they say good-bye.

Miss Romaine, at 87, laughs like a schoolgirl. The museum women beam admiringly.

Over months, they have pursued her family's startling tale, hoping to document it before the teller passes, anxious to preserve memories before time and inattention leave them for history's dustbin.

Kathryn Coney and Margaret Hutto, registrar and exhibits manager, are on a mission for Baltimore's new Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, scheduled to open late in the fall. No other institution in the country has such a charge. Since July they have toured the state gathering personal recollections and searching for stories and historic objects to shape a more complete narrative of black life. They hope to give voice to ordinary African-Americans whose personal heritage has long been submerged, to unearth suppressed tales and document stories that could be easily ignored because of the complications and challenges they present to traditional understandings of American history. The results are sometimes painful, but also often eventful and inspiring.

In the case of Miss Romaine, the potential significance of the story is quickly propelling the women into a world of speculative history, an ambiguous mixture of folktale and fact that they are unafraid to face, seeking answers to questions that the museum will be eager to tackle.

As the women comb the state, a government task force is also designing a new curriculum to bring the stories to children in the public schools. Some day, if Coney and Hutto succeed, Miss Romaine's family story might become a lesson taught in Maryland schools, from the Alleghenies to the ocean.

At dinner, however, Miss Romaine hesitates. She is, it seems, shy and unassuming, too modest to puff her family's legacy.

"Can you tell us about how you organized workers in the union at Rosenthal Department Store?" Coney asks when beverages arrive.

"Oh, let's don't get into that," Miss Romaine says.

When salads come, Coney tries again: "Could you talk about your Girl Scout troop that integrated the movie theaters here?"

"Yes, well, I guess that was my idea," Miss Romaine acknowledges demurely, then stops them with a deafening pause.

Later, after lobster bisque and coffee, Miss Romaine grows more comfortable. When they take her home, she starts talking. About her neighbors, her church. About family. Eventually, she pulls out the old photographs of Samuel Denson, her grandfather, and of herself as a young woman with the Girl Scout troop that desegregated the town's movie theaters.

Coney and Hutto stay until after midnight.

"A pleasure," Coney says, afterward.

"An honor," Hutto agrees.

The next morning, Miss Romaine stands with them at the old Emmanuel Church and sings, As With Gladness, Men of Old / Did the Guiding Star Behold. They share communion and after the service, she leads them on a tour.

Her grandfather, Samuel Denson, had spent his days as gatekeeper to a secret mission here, she says. It was dangerous and momentous. After more than 150 years, the story is just coming to light, and Miss Romaine may finally be able to claim her remarkable heritage.

When Coney, 32, and Hutto, 38, joined the history museum last summer, Coney reviewed plans for the exhibits and decided they should expand the scope way beyond Baltimore. "We are a state museum," she had said. "We need to build bridges in every county in the state."

Plans for the museum already included the grand figures of Maryland's past: Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, Billie Holiday and Benjamin Banneker. But beyond the eminent few, the museum was also expected to celebrate everyday heroes and heroines -- black watermen and coal miners, tobacco farmers and iron workers. Coney looked at a map. She counted 23 counties in Maryland. Every one, she decided, deserved a visit.

The two women understood the importance of provincial life. Coney grew up in rural Prince George's County; Hutto had spent the summers of her childhood in a small Texas town.

Both had moved to Washington as adults to join prominent federal institutions. Between them, they had worked on the staff of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian's Museum of African American History and Culture, even the National Library of Medicine. Friends had wondered about their new interest in Maryland. Colleagues questioned why they would leave prestigious national museums to work for a fledgling state concern.

Hutto, who studied history at the University of Houston, explained that as a girl, she grew up never hearing the name 'Frederick Douglass.' Coney, a graduate of Howard University, said that when she became an adult, she realized what schools in Southern Maryland had failed to teach about the past. Both wanted to join a groundbreaking effort to recover African-American history and highlight it in a new museum, presenting the best stories to schoolchildren as an integral part of their public education.

"I'm about doing what I love," Coney would say.

"It's a privilege to me," Hutto observed. "Any time you begin to include a previously marginalized group in American history, you have an opportunity to reshape history overall."

They bore a heavy responsibility. While most museums spring to life with the bequest of a prized collection from a wealthy benefactor, the Reginald Lewis Museum had no treasure-trove. With a $5 million gift from the Lewis Foundation, state funds and private donations totaling $33 million, the museum would open with a healthy budget but without a patron's assorted treasures. To create a museum, the collections staff would have to depend on the kindness of strangers.

For more than six months, Coney and Hutto traveled the state soliciting kindnesses. Searching for stories that best exemplified the African-American experience, the women sometimes found themselves just showing up in a town knocking on doors.

In October, they picked kale with a farm family in Southern Maryland, swatted bees and picnicked under a maple tree of a former black sharecropper's home. They faced down a snake with a farmer in a Calvert County tobacco barn. They staged a weekend retreat for black leaders in a small mountain town.

In Anne Arundel County, they collected snapshots of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois taken at a famous segregated beach community near Annapolis. In Montgomery County, they met with the most prominent black landowner in the area -- a connection Coney made one day at a local Ritz Camera shop, when a woman in line with her happened to drop off a collection of historic pictures of her family.

"There's no model for this," Hutto said. "You make some initial phone calls, but beyond that we depend on invitations and introductions wherever we go."

In Cumberland, they simply showed up one afternoon in the fall for a community meeting. Afterward, they dropped by the police station in nearby Frostburg asking for directions to the town's first "colored" school, then ended the evening in the rain, knocking at the front door of the curator of the Hill Street Museum, the local history repository.

They were on the trail of stories about black coal miners and canal workers, they said. They had also heard about an Underground Railroad site in Cumberland and needed to plumb local archives for evidence.

They were startled by unexpected amnesia.

Black coal miners? Black canal workers? Sorry, they were told, but there never were any.

An Underground Railroad site? Not likely, they heard -- just a story you hear in the black community.

Nevertheless, Coney and Hutto discovered photographs of Allegany County's African-American coal miners at the Hill Street Museum. They got a tour of tunnels under Emmanuel Episcopal Church, where the minister believed escaped slaves once found harbor before the Civil War.

Key facets of black history around Cumberland, the women discovered, had been mysteriously purged or forgotten.

History and memory, they were learning, often split, serving different purposes for different communities. The dichotomy was a sociological phenomenon -- one of the central reasons for the need and surging popularity of African-American museums.

To be fair, Hutto said, she did not believe white people would purposely deny the history of black people in Cumberland. It was the nature of black history to spring more from oral than written traditions -- a problem historians everywhere faced. Particularly given the need for secrecy about the Underground Railroad and the shame of slavery, diaries, letters and other public records proved hard to come by.

"I don't think people want to deny these stories," said Hutto. "But when it's outside their realm of experience, people want proof. They want documentation before they consider the history valid."

So Coney and Hutto kept digging into Cumberland's history, sorting through a fractured heritage and looking for documentation wherever they could find it.

Before they ever called on Romaine Franklin, the museum women met the Rev. Edward "Bo" Chapman, rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church.

Chapman, who is white, told them an intriguing story.

One Sunday afternoon a few years ago, the minister closed the church and took his daughter to a festival on Cumberland's canal. In the crowd, he saw an exhibit by an black man who had written a controversial book, Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. The author, Raymond Dobard, a professor from Howard University, displayed quilt patterns he believed once served as codes to help escaped slaves trace safe passage along the Underground Railroad.

Chapman examined the patterns.

"The first 10 years I was here," he told Coney and Hutto, "I heard snippets of this story from visitors, from black people coming into town on a bus tour from Ohio or Washington -- people who had no connection to Cumberland whatsoever -- who would stop by here and say, 'OK, can you show us the [Underground Railroad] tunnels?' And I would always say, 'Nah, that can't be. We had a slave balcony here back then. We had famous Confederate officers in the congregation. This couldn't have been a station on the Underground Railroad.' "

But as he talked to the professor, the minister had an epiphany. One pattern, he later recalled, showed a pyramid of blocks with large bells in the left- and right-hand corners. What did this mean? he asked.

According to the professor's theory, which has been widely debated and questioned, slaves memorized a quizzical story to help them interpret the codes. On escape routes, runaways would find quilts on fences or gate posts providing clues about where to travel next. One sentence in the story, Chapman thought, might explain the design's meaning: Shoofly told them to dress up in cotton and satin bow ties and go to the cathedral church, get married and exchange double wedding rings.

"Double wedding rings" probably referred to an audible signal, possibly from the bell of a church tower alerting slaves when it was safe to make their next move. The pyramid might suggest the church was built on a hill.

The minister grew very excited and asked the professor to come with him.

They left the festival and climbed the hill to Emmanuel, an impressive 19th-century cathedral-like structure whose tall spire dominates the landscape above the canal. In the spire, Chapman showed Dobard an enormous bell; in the basement, he led him through tunnels snaking beneath the church to the town library to the pastor's cellar, blocks away.

It suggested a compelling possibility. But if the church had been a station, how did the minister at the time manage it? Who, in effect, would have been there day and night to ring signals from the tower? Who could have moved runaways through the tunnels without attracting suspicion?

Over the next several months, Chapman dug into the mysteries of Emmanuel. He discovered that the man who had the church built in 1849, the Rev. Hillhouse Buell, had worked at two other churches before Cumberland, in Sykesville and Westminster -- both suspected stations on the Underground Railroad. Further, parish records indicated the Emmanuel congregation saw a notable increase in blacks -- slave and free -- during his tenure. One of those men, a former slave named Samuel Denson, had joined Buell's staff as church sexton.

Here, then, was the man who cleaned the sanctuary, fired the furnace, pumped the organ, tended the grounds, moved through the tunnels and, every hour -- day and night -- rang the church bell.

Samuel Denson, it turned out, was the grandfather of Romaine Denson Franklin, a devout local Episcopalian who desegregated the town's movie theaters during the 1960s and organized workers for local unions.

Although Chapman had never before met Miss Romaine, they soon became fast friends. To the minister, she was living proof of Emmanuel's -- and Allegany County's -- secret history.

Born in 1840 in Vicksburg, Miss., Samuel Denson, had escaped to Maryland as a teen-ager. Since he had been a "house slave," he arrived in Maryland already knowing how to read and write, knowing something about the management of domestic chores. Although he spent the rest of his life in Cumberland, owned a barbershop, reared 12 children and was buried at a prominent site in the town cemetery, almost no written records remained to detail his history.

Miss Romaine, who was 11 when he died, had only the briefest recollections. Occasionally, walking home from school, she remembered, she would drop by to see him at home. She would ask how he was doing, and he would say, "Tolerable." Then he would give her a dime.

She knew nothing about his mysterious past.

"Oh, I had heard about this Underground Railroad for a long time," Miss Romaine said the Sunday she toured the museum women through Emmanuel. "But I guess there was just very little said about it. When I was a kid, there was only so much people could say or do. You had to be careful, even in your own family."

For documentation, she had only a few historic photographs and a bit of informed conjecture.

On the other hand, Chapman had kept making connections. Samuel Denson, he said, probably appeared one day at the gate to Emmanuel's tunnels thinking it was the last stop on his route before crossing into freedman's territory a few miles north of town. There, he guessed, Denson met abolitionist Hillhouse Buell and stayed to pursue a higher calling.

"We can only speculate," said Chapman, as he brought the women down into the tunnels, "but I suspect that Samuel Denson walked through that door one day, Reverend Buell greeted him and rather than going on, Denson realized he had found a co-conspirator. And Buell, I imagine, realized he had found a man with skills that were well-suited for the job. It was probably just a good fit."

Emmanuel's tunnels, he said, existed, originally, for the storage of munitions and supplies when the site housed Fort Cumberland in the 1700s. When the property became a site for the church in 1849, Chapman believes, Buell preserved the tunnels to create a station for the Underground Railroad. "In other words," he said, "Hillhouse Buell actually came here to build a station. His mission here had everything to do with the Underground Railroad."

On a grassy hillside below the church, Chapman showed the women a fine view of town: the railroad, the canal, the Potomac River. African-Americans worked on the canals, he explained, and lived in a shantytown just within sight, a crowded, transient, noisy place, thick with gin joints, pool halls and warehouses -- the perfect spot for escapees to blend in while waiting for a signal.

After 17 years as Emanuel's pastor, Chapman said he had not seen the town's landscape change very much, but in light of historical evidence, the town had begun to reveal itself as a much different place. Cumberland was a town with a rich African-American past.

After the tour, the museum women quizzed Miss Romaine more about her own life -- about the "colored school" she attended as a girl; about her graduation from a teacher's college in Bowie; about her work for the retail sales clerk union and a labor organizer; then, as the leader of a Girl Scout troop that desegregated Cumberland's movie theaters in the 1960s.

"It's just the genes, I guess," she said.

Over in a corner, Chapman pondered the larger mystery -- why such a rich part of Cumberland's history, born in a historic mission, would have been lost for so long. "Obviously, activity with the Underground Railroad conspiracy was illegal," he said. "If you were white, you'd be jailed. If you were black, you'd be lynched." Beyond that, why did the story itself go underground for more than 150 years in the town's official histories, only to be discovered by happenstance, in this chance meeting of a white minister and a black art historian on the canal?

He shook his head, sadly.

"Black people here are now telling me they knew this story forever," he said. In fact, one black member of his congregation, 50-year-old Stephanie Gates, later told him she had known about it since childhood. "It was part of their community story. They just weren't telling us. They didn't trust us with their secrets. Still don't entirely, as far as I can tell."

There are already 80 lesson plans ready for testing in the state's new African- American curriculum. Samuel Denson's story is not yet among them.

But while documentation is not solid enough yet to verify all aspects of the Denson tale, Charles Christian, a University of Maryland professor who heads the task force guiding the curriculum, said he wants to know more. The life of a former slave, joined in concert with black and white Marylanders to liberate the nation from slavery -- "That," he said, "is very, very interesting to me."

But while the story may not yet be ready for the history books, the museum staff has delivered the bare bones and will continue to examine the evidence. "We are ready now to look at many of the stories that have been sustained or carried from one generation to another within the African-American community, and we're ready to ask questions about their authenticity," Christian said.

African-American history has always posed particular challenges. The desire among blacks and whites to forget painful experiences, the shame felt by former slave-holding families, the weight of prevailing racial prejudices and, in many cases, the absence of written records conspire against historians. There is the difficulty of documenting lineages of slaves, the problem of reclaiming neglected artifacts, reviving private memories and testing testimony with scholarly rigor.

But regardless of whether the name Samuel Denson makes it into the curriculum, the museum already sees a place for him -- and his granddaughter -- in its exhibitions: in discussions of the controversial thesis about slaves using quilts as maps for the Underground Railroad; as sexton of a large mountain church, owner of a barbershop, father of 12 children; and as grandfather of Romaine Denson Franklin, this woman who worked with the NAACP and organized workers and desegregated movie theaters.

"It's important just to be knowledgeable about the questions, even when you don't necessarily have all the answers," said A.T. Stephens, the museum's education director. "A century after an event, we don't always have the answer. We can only guess or surmise what the motivations were or what the outcomes were. We're lucky enough to have a contemporary account, much less a diary or story in a newspaper from the time.

"So much of what is African-American history is lost to the ephemera of records. It's more often conversational. It's passed down. In some locales it might be belittled as hearsay. So a lot gets lost -- no one is taking it down, no one's taken a picture of it. But many historians are also saying that the oral history has validity, too, just as important as the written record. Certainly that [oral] material has become valuable to capture.

"For us, it's enough to start there, and it may be my job to encourage discussions with scholars about how history gets written, how people forget it or protect it in memory. We can be a place for this kind of discussion, a mediation, a conversation about how histories are produced."

The Reginald Lewis museum, when it opens at the end of this year, will include the stories of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, Benjamin Banneker, Billie Holiday and Chick Webb -- all Maryland figures with well-documented pasts. It will focus on laws and civil rights and history and culture, setting the state's history in a national perspective.

Romaine Franklin and Samuel Denson will be there, too.

After their tour of the church, Miss Romaine asks the museum women to look at one more historic spot.

They climb into Coney's car and drive through town, turning left, then right, down narrow streets.

Sometime in the 1890s, Miss Romaine says, white people at Emmanuel Church decided to tear down the old "slave balcony" and create a separate congregation for their black members. Samuel Denson led the new mission and, with financial support from Emmanuel, helped build St. Phillips Episcopal nearby.

St. Phillips prospered, and after her grandfather died, Miss Romaine joined the leadership. It was her Girl Scout troop, for instance, that desegregated the movie theaters.

As she talks, she tells Coney to pull into a large, empty parking lot.

Eventually, she continues, the diocese decided to sell St. Phillips. It used the proceeds to finance a struggling white congregation in a poorer section of town. The black congregation was told they would have to move again, this time into the poorer part of town, where Miss Romaine attends church today.

So what happened to St. Phillips?

The slender matriarch steps out of the car and scans the blank landscape.

It had been here. Now nothing. Torn down. Paved over. The final piece of Samuel Denson's story, vanished in time.

Miss Romaine is quiet now. The museum women stand with her silently, trying again to imagine what once had been.

Creating a new museum

What: The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture

Innovation: Within the next year, Maryland's 850,000 public school students will begin to combine classroom lessons with field trips to the as-yet-unopened museum. The formal connection between curriculum and museum will be a first in the United States.

Opening: Scheduled for late 2004.

Location: Baltimore's Inner Harbor at President and Pratt streets. The 82,000-square-foot museum will include a 2,000-seat theater, oral history studio, classrooms, exhibit space, cafe and a section for genealogical research.

Financing: Total cost is $31 million, with a $3 million state match from corporate and private donations; $5 million from the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation for educational initiatives; state government and private sources will cover operating expenses at a 75 / 25 percent split for the first two years, 50 / 50 afterward.

Exhibits: Designed to complement school curriculum, exhibits will focus on three themes: Building Maryland / Building A Nation; Family and Community; Art & Enlightenment.

Curriculum: A task force of museum staff and state education officials has developed 80 lesson plans for elementary schools, which will be field-tested beginning in the fall and taught in grades 4 to 8 by the spring of 2005. A separate high school curriculum is also being developed for future use. According to plans, material from African-American studies will eventually appear on the Maryland School Assessment, the state's mandatory standardized tests.

Gathering a treasure trove

Though the museum's search for stories and artifacts continues, already its collections include:

* Manumission records of former slave Isaac Dorsey of Anne Arundel County

* Implements used by sailmaker Downes Curtis of Talbot County

* Civil rights correspondence from lawyers Donald Murray and Thurgood Marshall to Esther McCready, first African-American graduate of the University of Maryland School of Nursing

* Tobacco implements, baskets, planter and photographs of Calvert County sharecropper Leroy Greene

* Historic photographs from The Afro-American and the typewriter of its founder, John Murphy Sr.

To contact the museum, visit its Web site at www.african american / contact.html or call 410-333-1130.

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