By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Dillard said she also wants to make sure that the collection of history goes beyond slavery, which is why the group included such sites as Wilmer's Park on its list. And Parker took the idea a step further, saying the county needs a "serious advocacy group to save structures and advocate on the political level about how they should be saved and interpreted."
The Good Luck School for Colored was advertised by the owner three years ago as a site for new home construction. The Historic Preservation Commission and the African American Heritage Preservation group are trying to save it from demolition by encouraging the county to buy the school and move it next to Dorsey Chapel, about 100 yards away. The church, which is owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, was built in 1900 to serve the black farming community of Brookland, near the railroad village of Glenn Dale.
The Butler House, which is owned by descendants of the Butlers, is dilapidated. The preservation group is trying to keep the land from being purchased by a developer and is discussing its position on a developer's plans to build at Wilmer's Park. The project would include condominiums, a shopping center, a restaurant and a theater.
David Turner, president of the county's Historic Preservation Commission, said that if the charge is led by African Americans, it could go a long way toward saving some of the structures. "Elected officials are more likely to listen to a June White Dillard . . . than a David Turner," said Turner, who is white. Turner said he hopes that the formation of the new group means land use and preservation will become a political issue in the 2010 election.
Najah Duvall-Gabriel, an African American graduate of the University of Maryland's historic preservation program and a member of the Prince George's group, said residents have been feverishly working to identify and save sites because of "pressures by developers to change the environment."
She said the group is trying to take advantage of the slowdown in the housing market and the resulting decrease in new construction.
Some developers said they were unaware of the effort by the group.
Leo Bruso, president of Land & Commercial in Upper Marlboro, said the influence of the group will depend on "how it's handled and what they are looking to preserve."
About seven years ago, a Bruso project to build estate homes along the Potomac River in Fort Washington was stopped after the graves of prominent landowner Dennis Lyles and his four children were found there. The graves had not been disturbed since 1820.
The county "bought it, and there are no homes there," said Bruso, who disagrees with the stance taken by the residents who opposed his project and the action taken by the county.
Parker said the group's plans "could take some property out of play." But he said it won't stop development; it will just put things into context.
"Just like we have to protect our environment, we have to protect our history," Parker said. "It's about legacy."