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Four generations on the land

The Baltimore Sun

Annette Dixon remembers summers and weekends at her grandfather's tobacco farm in Lothian, learning how to pick tobacco while other kids splashed at the pool.

Her mother, Dolores, said her children would complain, "It's bad enough that Poppa gets us up at the crack of dawn, but then if we finished early, the next thing you know, he's saying, 'Let's go see what Uncle Jim or Uncle Robert's doing, and help them out for a while.' "

Now 26, Annette knows her experience was special, a product of generations of a close-knit family that sought to keep the farming tradition alive - they still butcher their own meat - even as the younger generation sought jobs away from the farm.

"It was definitely something that made my life very unique," she said.

She and more than 300 of her relatives are expected to gather in Lothian on Saturday for the Spriggs family's 30th reunion, but the family has been in the region since the early 1800s. Its origins are unclear: The earliest record they have is of Robert and Martha Spriggs, Annette's great-great-grandparents on her mother's side. They settled in Baltimore from Philadelphia, likely as freemen, since Philadelphia had a high percentage of free blacks at the time. Their ability to travel indicated that they probably weren't slaves, according to a family history written by Annette's sister, Etosha Dixon.

They had five children, including James Henry Spriggs, who would go on to start the family that settled throughout rural Anne Arundel and Calvert counties. He had eight children, including Dolores' father, Mordie.

"Daddy and his brother stayed within 10 miles of where they were born," said Dolores, who lives in Baltimore. Her father had nine children of his own. "Whenever we go down to the country, everyone down there knows everybody."

Her grandfather was a sharecropper for two men, including Jim Chaney, who gave Spriggs the land to build Peter's Church of Chaney in Jewell, over which he supervised construction. His daughter, Cornelia, was the first person to get married in the church.

A short distance away, Spriggs Cemetery is where all family members have been buried, on a half-acre plot given to them by one of the men James Henry sharecropped for.

His sons also became sharecroppers, and Mordie saved enough money to buy 50 acres of land for his own tobacco farm, an amazing feat, Annette said, at a time when few men, particularly black men, had those kinds of financial resources.

The family stuck with the area because it was difficult for African-Americans to move around during segregation into new communities where whites might not trust them. In their own communities, the Spriggs were respected and known as hard-working, Annette said.

"They felt safe," Dolores said, "safe as a black person can be."

Being surrounded by family on her grandparents' old farm in Lothian, next door to her aunt and uncle, also has great benefits.

"They support me in any way, shape or form," she said. "You don't get that with other neighbors that aren't your family."

The down side is, if she gets in trouble, everybody knows before she even gets home, she said with a laugh.

Though Annette's generation has dispersed more throughout the country, pursuing different fields when they got opportunities to earn higher-level degrees, they are motivated just as their parents were, she said. Many have taken jobs with the federal government. Despite the distance, she expects many to return for the reunion, which will be on family property at Geno's ballfield.

"Some families have large issues," said Joseph Lee Spriggs, Dolores' first cousin, who lives in Owings within 10 miles of all of his immediate family. "We have very modest people. We just feel connected."

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