Town of slaves-turned-soldiers gets its due

THE BALTIMORE SUN

UNIONVILLE -- Residents and others whose roots are deep in this Eastern Shore village will gather today to honor their founders -- former slaves who fought for the Union army, then returned to build houses, a church, a school and a modest life of freedom.

The mile-long cluster of 50 or so homes on a winding country road a few miles outside Easton is one of a handful of African-American communities that began as slave quarters near sprawling plantations in rural Talbot County and blossomed after the Civil War.

For Pamela Roberts-Price and others who grew up here in the shadow of St. Stephens African Methodist Episcopal Church, Unionville remains a touchstone, a home place -- even if they are a little fuzzy about the details of their history.

"To us, they were 'the soldiers,' and I remember following our parents across the street to the cemetery on Memorial Day," says Roberts-Price, whose great-great-grandfather, Henry Roberts, was buried there in 1885. "We were a close-knit and prideful community. Because of them, there was always an aura that kept us standing tall."

The 18 veterans will be honored today at the cemetery with a plaque making it a stop on the state's Civil War Trails system. Unionville was designated a Maryland historic site in 1998.

The attention to black history comes after the County Council ended a bitter squabble by voting in March to allow a statue of abolitionist Frederick Douglass on the courthouse lawn in Easton, where it will join a Confederate monument. Douglass, perhaps Talbot's most accomplished native, lived his early life in slavery in several locations near Unionville.

Roberts-Price, 46, whose brother William "Butch" Price has researched some of the family history, is related to at least two of the Civil War veterans, both named Roberts. Living now in Clinton, where she owns a printing business, she keeps in touch with some of Unionville's elderly residents and a few relatives and friends who have moved back after leaving for college and careers.

Theresa DeShields, a retired union organizer, is happy to be living in her mother's home after years away working in the garment district of New York.

"It's different now, but there are so many memories," says DeShields, 63. "When I was a child, we had kerosene lamps in the houses. Everybody had a porch, and they kept an eye on you. It was one big, extended family."

As old-timers left, some properties became run-down, and a Habitat for Humanity housing campaign has brought new homes and new faces to Unionville in recent years.

From its founding, St. Stephens and a one-room schoolhouse were the twin anchors of the village. The church was built in 1871, then rebuilt after a fire in 1897, but the first church was a log structure built about 1830. The schoolhouse burned about four years ago.

Martha Ray Chase Greene, an Anne Arundel County native, moved to Talbot County in 1932 and taught in the one-room school. She married a local man and has lived here ever since. At 92, the retired teacher known by everyone as "Mom" is also the oldest active member of St. Stephens.

"I remember some of the old people when I moved here who talked about the soldiers they had known in their old age, but it's a long time ago," Greene says. "Things change. When I first came here, I taught 30 kids in first through seventh grade."

Bernard Demczuk, who is working on a doctorate in African-American studies at George Washington University, is writing a book about the community. He says his research shows that Unionville might be the only community in the nation built by former slaves who also fought in the Civil War.

"This is one of the great untold stories of social history," Demczuk says. "These men could have sat out the war, just waiting to see how it came out. If the South wins, they remain slaves; if the North wins, they are free. Instead, they volunteered to fight for their freedom. I believe it was that inner strength, that elevated confidence, that they were able to bring home after the war."

Like most of the more than 200,000 black volunteers, the 18 from Unionville saw a lot of combat, taking part in the siege of Petersburg and the battle of Cold Harbor outside Richmond, among other action. According to their tombstones and pension papers, at least half fought with the 7th Regiment of Maryland.

Discharged in 1866, the soldiers began building new lives in 1867 when the Cowgill family, Quakers who owned nearby Lombardy Plantation, offered the veterans an opportunity to own plots of land for $1 a month. Originally called Cowgillstown, it was renamed in honor of the Union army.

Roberts-Price, who helped organize a Roberts family reunion of about 100 relatives near Easton last month, says descendants of "the soldiers" hope the sudden surge in historical interest will continue.

"I guess what this really says is that their legacy continues," Roberts-Price says. "That's what we want, for everything they started continues."

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