Aging is Threatening the History of Many Black Communities in MarylandHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, oral history, local history, community history
Maryland’s Black communities have long been losing their lands to housing developments, flooding and erosion. Now they are also in danger of losing their history.
Over the past six months, two prominent chroniclers of Black Marylanders have died — James Stanley Lane in Crisfield and Louis S. Diggs in Catonsville. Each told the stories of their communities.
Diggs interviewed, among others, steelworkers of Sparrows Point; Lane preserved the stories of crab pickers, oyster shuckers and watermen. Their peers in the Black history community are getting older and looking to pass the torch — only they’re not finding a receptive younger generation.
“It’s just a challenge to maintain the interest,” said Newell Quinton, a retired administrator who is the de facto community historian in San Domingo, the Wicomico County hamlet where he grew up. “Today’s people have more opportunity to be engaged in other things, whereas we did not.”
Quinton is 79. Janice Hayes-Williams, a seventh-generation Annapolis resident who shares stories of the Black experience in Maryland’s capital, is 65. Glen Ross, a Baltimore City historian known for tours of the city’s toxic legacy, just hit 70. So did Vincent Leggett, the founder of Blacks of the Chesapeake, who maintains an extensive archive of Black maritime history.
No obvious replacement looms in academia for any of them. In 2021, Black employees made up less than 10% of all employees in higher education, according to the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. In 2018, the American History Association reported that history majors declined the most of all bachelor degree programs. Many Ph.D. programs, already small, include only a few Black students, and often fewer tenured professors to teach them. Without young Black scholars preserving the collective memory, many historians worry that Black contributions to Maryland will go unrecognized.
“If you look over the last decade, some of the best writing on African American history has come from outside the community,” said Alan Spears of the National Parks Conservation Association, who counts himself among the region’s younger Black historians at age 58. “The bench strength for a lot of this stuff is not that deep. That clarion call you’re hearing is an alarm bell ringing.”
Maryland is rich with the history of Black Americans and their struggle for freedom. Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass are two of the nation’s most famous, but they didn’t act alone. A community of teachers, preachers, labor organizers, mariners and scholars supported them. Many kept records of their early civil rights struggles. Those families were often reluctant to turn over cherished documents to academic institutions, said Michael Guy, a historian and Ph.D. candidate at the George Washington University.
“Giving papers over to archives allows white historians to tell their stories in ways that are not representative of the reality of how Black people see it,” he said. “The Black historians were people that the people trusted with the documents. And if you lose them, you lose access to family histories that a lot of academics don’t feel are important enough to keep in archives.”
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