African American Preservation Group Aims to Protect Prince George's History
Monday, August 24, 2009
Concerned that development could erase keys to Prince George's County's rich cultural heritage, a growing number of African Americans in the county are joining forces to save relics of their past.
The county has been "maintaining plantations for the majority culture, but not ours," said June White Dillard, president of the Prince George's chapter of the NAACP. "We are now integrating ourselves in the process to ensure that African American sites are included in the list."
Among the sites they have targeted: the Good Luck School for Colored in Glenn Dale, a tiny one-room schoolhouse built about 1899; the Butler House, an 1850s home once owned by freed slaves that is near National Harbor in Oxon Hill; and Wilmer's Park in Brandywine, which was part of the "Chitlin' Circuit," a place where black singers and dancers entertained in the 1950s and '60s when Jim Crow discrimination kept them out of white establishments.
They are also trying to identify the locations of slave graves and cabins in the county.
Samuel Parker Jr., chairman of the county's Planning Board, said residents want to see how Prince George's, where 60 percent of the population in 1860 was enslaved, became what it is today: the most affluent majority-black county in the country.
"It is about how this county evolved," Parker said.
Parker, who is black, joined forces with Dillard to form the African American Heritage Preservation group. It is a consortium of nonprofit groups including the county's historical society, the genealogical society and governmental agencies, as well as residents interested in African American preservation.
Parker, who worked on historic preservation projects before he joined the Planning Board, said that there has always been an interest in the county in preserving African American history but that the efforts were made by individuals or small groups.
"In order to have a vibrant African American preservation movement, you have to have a lot of people coalescing around the movement," Parker said. "I think we have that."
Dillard said the project began about two years ago during Black History Month when she realized that there was little to show about African American history in the county. Dillard said she was surprised it was so far behind in documenting the efforts of African Americans.
"If we don't know our history, we don't understand the contributions we have had in this county," she said.
There was no oral history from those who endured the discrimination of the 1950s and 1960s. And most of the structures that show the county's past are the mansions where slave owners lived, she said, not the slave quarters. For example, the county has identified the site of Clagett House at Cool Spring, a Louisiana-style plantation house in Upper Marlboro, but the slave cabins have not been located.