Black heritage honored

The Baltimore Sun

The ceremony to dedicate a small, pale-yellow clapboard building at St. Paul's Roman Catholic Church in Ellicott City to the memory of Eva Johnson had little pomp but plenty of historical significance.

Johnson's family members say that, according to stories passed down through the generations, some of their ancestors were slaves at Doughoregan Manor. The once-vast Colonial estate was the home of Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signatory to the Declaration of Independence.

But the personal history of Johnson and her family living in Ellicott City during segregation is equally compelling, especially for parishioners at St. Paul's. The one-story, slant-roofed building just off College Avenue, which now houses a parish office, was formerly a Catholic school for blacks during the "unfortunate days of segregation," said the Rev. Matthew Buening, pastor of the 170-year-old church.

"I was just so impressed with her story," said Buening, who came to St. Paul's a month before Johnson's death at age 92 in July. "She would walk in the rain to get to church. How many of us would stay so dedicated to the church?"

Johnson did domestic work and was a county schools custodian for more than 20 years, her family members said. But she also was interested and involved in church and community affairs, said Herbert Brown, 77, who grew up on Fels Lane in the days when it was Ellicott City's black enclave.

"She was one of the most devout Catholics in Ellicott City," he said.

Johnson often attended community and school meetings, and people in the neighborhood naturally gravitated to the home she shared with her husband, William, and their seven children.

"Her house was like a magnet," Brown said.

The family also was involved in the county government's replacement in 1969 of the dilapidated Fels Lane rental units with Hilltop Housing, the county's first public housing complex. That's where the Johnsons lived for decades.

About 30 people, including a dozen of Johnson's relatives, attended the dedication ceremony. The group gathered in the former schoolroom in the hillside church complex overlooking the Patapsco River after a Thursday night Bible study discussion. Buening read the inscription on a plaque mounted near the building's front door after handing everyone a paper copy of the words.

"In memory of Eva Johnson and the many faithful and heroic Catholics who endured the hardships of prejudice and segregation, we dedicate this building once used to separate our parishioners in the hope that we will always be united as the Body of Christ and the family of St. Paul's Parish."

As a child, Johnson had come daily to the small building, which at the time was called "St. Paul's Colored School." Buening, who is white, said he officiated at Eva Johnson's funeral and recently began thinking about her life, together with other local and national events, such as the church marking its 170th anniversary in 2008, Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday and the election of President Barack Obama.

"All these things kind of came together," he said, leading to the idea of dedicating the former school building.

Roxanne Johnson-Gray, 57, one of Eva Johnson's seven children, said she and her siblings went to the church school, too, though some attended in a different building. But by the time she began school in the 1950s, classes were integrated. She later transferred to a segregated public elementary school on Fels Lane near their family home.

Johnson-Gray had no conception of prejudice as a young child, she said, even after transferring to the segregated school. Howard County was a small, rural place before 1950, when the population was 23,119, including about 3,900 blacks. Today the total population is nearing 300,000.

"We were all together. No one ever said anything," she said. "Prejudice wasn't a spoken word in Catholic school."

Raymond Johnson, who is older, said he attended St. Paul's in the late 1940s when the school was segregated. At the dedication ceremony, held on Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday, he looked over a souvenir history of the church published in 1938. It contained a photo of the black students gathered before their teacher, a white priest. Raymond recognized his older brother, William, and several other children in the photo.

Much of the family's history is hard to trace, because although the histories of prominent white families were often documented, the lives of the poor and slaves were not, historians say.

In his 2000 book, Prince of Ireland, Planters of Maryland: A Carroll Saga, 1500-1782, author Ronald Hoffman reported there were 330 slaves at Doughoregan Manor in 1773 in 14 principal matriarchal families. He wrote that though most of the work on "the Manor" was done by black workers, many slaves toiled in anonymity, and some had only first names.

Eva Johnson's maiden name was Cross, said Johnson-Gray, who added that her great-grandfather, David Cross, who died in 1940, is believed to have grown up at Doughoregan during the slavery era.

Johnson-Gray said she believes that many black Ellicott City residents had come from the Carroll property. The vast farm was once a 10,000-acre estate, a portion of which - including the family's nearly 300-year-old mansion and chapel - still is owned by Charles Carroll's descendants.

The Cross family was Catholic because the Carrolls were Catholic, Johnson-Gray surmises. Priests at Doughoregan baptized babies and performed weddings and funerals, she said.

The Crosses and other families joined St. Paul's, she said, because it was the only Catholic church in old Ellicott City.

Dominique Johnson, 13, Eva Johnson's great-grandson, said he was interested in the dedication and all the history involving his family.

"It's pretty cool," he said. "There's nothing better than black history, especially when it's about my grandma."

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