A family town built on pride


Nearly one hundred years ago, Nicholas "Papa Nick" Matthews - a black farm laborer who couldn't read or write - borrowed $20 from his one-time boss to buy 40 acres of west Anne Arundel county farmland and start a community.

Today, Matthews would hardly recognize the town bearing his name.

Less than a mile from where the town's founder once picked peaches, Arundel Mills beckons shoppers with outlet stores and a mega-screen, faux Egyptian-temple theater. Black children and white children go to school together, condos have sprouted where crops once bloomed and a ring of highways lead to the area's business parks.

Tomorrow, Papa Nick's descendants will gather in Matthewstown on Matthews Town Road to raise a glass of grandson William "Penn" Matthews' homemade cherry wine and remember their town as it once was.

"We've missed a lot of Papa Nick's past, and we just don't want that to happen again," said Tyrone Galloway, one of many descendants of Matthews still living in the community. "We're going to try to take the younger generation back to 1903 as best we can."

That time travel will include horse-and-buggy rides - a nod to Matthews' career as an a-rab carting his wares to South Baltimore - and a fish fry. The man known as Grandpa Penn will pick cherries from his backyard tree for wine, some of the aunts will bake coconut cakes, and the children will drink homemade root beer from old-fashioned preserve jars.

But mostly, the Matthewstown residents who remember Papa Nick and his iron-willed wife, Mama Rose, look forward to swapping tales of a man who rose above poverty and Jim Crow to build a loving neighborhood that remains largely a family despite the changes swirling around it.

Matthewstown - still not named on county maps - is tucked amid a canopy of trees shielding it from the mega-mall, highways and office parks. Its one-lane roads lead to sturdy houses with large, green lawns. Neighbors wave to passing cars and often stop drivers to inquire about a cousin or grandchild.

Like several other historically black towns in the region that host annual celebrations, Matthewstown's organizers hope the anniversary reminds residents of their heritage and the history of the area - a much different place now than it was in 1875, when Papa Nick was born.

He grew up in a four-room house on Larkin Shipley's farm in Harmans, where he followed in his father's footsteps and became a laborer. After Larkin Shipley's death in 1890, Shipley's two sons, Irvin and Edgar, left their schools in Baltimore to run the farm. Matthews and his family showed the white city boys Shipley's harvesting methods, and the farm prospered.

The Shipleys never forgot the help. In 1903, Irvin Shipley told Nicholas Matthews he had seen 40 acres for sale nearby and that he would lend Matthews the $20 to buy it, provided Matthews never told a white person that the money came from a white man.

Papa Nick kept his word, according to a history of the families written by Irvin Shipley's niece, Isabel Shipley Cunningham, and Matthews' great-great-grandson, Edward Sewell.

With a borrowed mule and a plow, Papa Nick cleared the land; planted cantaloupes, strawberries and beans; and sold his wares door to door. He and his wife raised 10 children, many of whom stayed to raise their own families on Matthews' land. Then their children stayed, creating a town where nearly everyone was related.

That closeness made for interesting times when party-line telephones came to the neighborhood and cousins could hear each other gossiping. It also meant that the children couldn't get away with mischief - their aunts often were also their teachers at the all-black public elementary school.

According to his grandchildren, Papa Nick spoke like a learned professor despite never having learned to read or write. Mama Rose would read him Bible verses, and he would repeat them as he walked around the neighborhood. According to family lore, his white customers often would gather at his cart to hear his recitations.

One granddaughter, Doris Brashears, remembers how Papa Nick would catch the children sneaking into his peach orchard after school and yell at them to get out.

"You would no more than set in there and you would hear his voice," she said. "And you would wonder, 'Where is he?'"

Penn Matthews said that Papa Nick had little patience for horseplay in his fields. To him, more help in the fields was not necessarily better; if the Matthews boys worked too close together, they could find ways to avoid working at all.

"He used to tell all the little boys around here that one boy is a boy, two boys is half a boy, and three boys, well you ain't got no boy at all," he said, laughing.

Once, when a 7-year-old Penn Matthews tired of planting cantaloupes, he dumped a whole handful of seeds into one spot. Even though he covered it up, his grandfather found the spot in the 2-acre field and scolded the young boy with words that resonate nearly 70 years later.

"He said, 'Well, ain't that just like the devil. You may plant it now, but it will come up on you later,'" Penn Matthews said.

Papa Nick always told the neighborhood boys to buy land, that it was the only security a black man could count on in an age of segregated schools and racial intolerance.

He died in 1964, 10 years after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was supposed to integrate the schools. But the promise of equality also brought fear to Matthewstown's children. Their teachers were no longer aunts, their peers no longer cousins.

The racial taunts Edward Sewell endured while at Arundel High School prompted him to leave Maryland after graduation. Now a successful real estate developer in San Francisco, Sewell has been a driving force behind the centennial event.

"I would come home to Maryland, and it seemed like you were still fighting the Civil War sometimes," said Sewell, who is among the few Matthews descendants to leave and who is considering moving back. "But as I looked at Matthewstown, I saw a community that had started, and flourished, and I was fascinated to see where it might go in the next 100 years."

But time doesn't stand still - especially in the fast-growing Baltimore suburbs. Brashears estimates that one-third of the town's 66 homes have no connection to the Matthews family. Several new, white residents will join in the centennial festivities. And if the party leads some would-be homeowners to discover the town, the old-timers say that's fine with them.

"Most people say, 'I didn't even know there was a community back here.' And we tend to like it just that way," Galloway said. "But you can't stop progress forever. If the family remains strong, then this community will remain strong."

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