Myriad of Black History Month events throughout Prince George's County

Toni Brady of Fort Washington looks at an exhibit on tobacco farmer Henrietta Lacks, who had a part in modern medicine's history.
Toni Brady of Fort Washington looks at an exhibit on tobacco farmer Henrietta Lacks, who had a part in modern medicine's history.
By Zoe Tillman
The Gazette
Thursday, February 10, 2011

For Temple Hills resident Luther Atkinson, the annual celebration of Black History Month in February is not only a chance to revisit black history nationwide but his personal history as well.

Atkinson, 73, played Negro League Baseball in the late 1950s and 1960s and shared his story and talked about the league's history Friday at Oakcrest Community Center in Capitol Heights. He is scheduled to speak at Suitland Community Center at 6 p.m. Feb. 18.

"What [Jackie Robinson] did, and what we did - we just don't want it to be in vain," Atkinson said. "Even though we didn't walk with Martin Luther King, I think we played a big part in the civil rights movement and ending segregation."

Robinson broke down Major League Baseball's racial barrier when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Atkinson's talk is one of dozens of free events taking place throughout Prince George's County to commemorate Black History Month. It is one of several scheduled for sites across the south county that highlight the area's history.

Darnall's Chance House Museum, a historic home in Upper Marlboro, will offer free tours at 1 and 3 p.m. Friday afternoons this month to highlight the history of black women who were enslaved at Darnall's Chance in the 18th century. Of the 32 people enslaved there, 15 were women, museum director Susan Reidy said.

Darnall's Chance opened as a museum in 1988 and runs tours year-round. Although regular tours of the house include the history of the property's enslaved black men and women, Black History Month offers an annual opportunity to focus especially on their contributions to the county's history, Reidy said.

Prince George's "was a powerhouse in 18th-century Maryland," she said. "It was a very wealthy colony in Maryland; we were built upon African Americans. They contributed to that wealth, that advancement; they contributed to what we are today."

Other south county sites will focus on the history of notable black residents from Maryland and the metropolitan region.

On Saturday, at the Surratt House Museum in Clinton, storyteller Bill Grimmette will portray Frederick Douglass, who was born on Maryland's Eastern Shore. During the free event, which is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m., Grimmette will tell the story of Douglass's life, in character, and take questions from the audience.

Douglass had no direct ties to the Surratt House; the 19th-century house was the home of Mary Surratt, who became the first woman to be executed by the federal government in 1865 for aiding John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

"Many people probably don't realize that Frederick Douglass was a Marylander," said Laurie Verge, the Surratt House's museum director. "We want our citizens to know some of the important people in their history, in our history, and to appreciate the accomplishments that were made even back then."

This year, the Surratt House, which was restored as a museum in the 1970s, is showcasing an exhibition on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, with a spotlight on notable events and people from Maryland. The exhibit, "Maryland: A House Divided," will be on display through December and has an admission fee.

On Feb. 18 from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Oxon Hill Manor, a home that dates to the 1700s, will showcase the history of the nation's black hospitals, including Howard University Hospital in the District. Cynthia Jackson, Oxon Hill Manor's assistant manager, said she hopes to introduce residents to an aspect of black history that they might not know.

Jackson helped put together an exhibit that will be on display at the Billingsley House Museum in Upper Marlboro from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays this month. It is about the life of Henrietta Lacks, a black tobacco farmer from Virginia who played an important role in the history of modern medicine. Although Lacks had no connection to the Billingsley House, Jackson said she likes presenting people and stories from black history with which residents might not be familiar.

"We should [celebrate black history] every month," she said.

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