On this, the last day of Black History Month, I thought it important to remind people why such heritage months matter. Particularly in states such as Maryland, which I think many forget are part of The South. Every now and then, a story makes national news such as the one involving the Maryland Delegate in Harford county who thought it okay to utter a derogatory racial slur about a Maryland county that has an unmistakable majority makeup of African Americans in it. When these stories come out, there are always those who are very vocal, and there are those who are noticeably and sometimes uncharacteristically silent. If one has the right to free speech, then the right to remain silent also exists. But I find that it’s usually in the silent, dark corners where uncomfortable truths can be found. In the case of a community, being silent actually impedes on it being able to be the best that it can be. I wanted to write an example using Howard County, Ellicott City specifically, looped around Black History Month.
How many people knew that slaves sales occurred in historic Ellicott City on Main Street? How many people knew that the owner of the Disney’s Tavern, Deborah Disney, sold off part of her land to the Board of Commissions in order to put up the new courthouse and jail? How many people knew that Disney’s Tavern, a place where government, the elite, and attorneys socialized, was the site for at least one documented instance of the sale of a slave?
*Note, a most extensive search for the history of the Howard district can’t be adequately done because the newspapers from the time period are missing.
A few years before this sale, the B&O Railroad got extended from Baltimore to Ellicott’s Mills. Coincidentally, today is also the day when Chapter 123 of the 1826 Session Laws of Maryland enabled the B&O Railroad to even exist. Though it’s said time and time again by those who have written about the early years of the railroad that slaves weren’t used to build it, they give the reason for the assertion because no one has found any records that suggest otherwise. This of course doesn’t mean that slaves didn’t build it. Each reader is free to have their thoughts on it, and I’ll leave my personal ones out of this part so that you can.
Next, how many people knew that an African-American man was lynched in Ellicott City? His name was Jacob Henson, and you can find “Ellicott City” by finding it here on this map:
Disagree that “lynching” was what it was? Our own Maryland archives refers to it the exact same way as they describe 15-20 armed and masked men who stormed the jail in Ellicott City and took Mr. Henson to be hung:
Finally, I come to the George Howard building. How far we’ve come, indeed, that we have our first African American county executive who comes in and out of that building nearly daily. How many people know that it was named for Governor George Howard, who in 1842 created the Maryland Slaveholder’s Convention? Governor Howard had many of his own slaves. When he died in 1846, he left his wife Prudence alone, in his will, 22 slaves. Governor Howard also had a role in drafting the fugitive slave law, and someone in the county told me that he had nearly a thousand slaves while at his residence at Waverly. I haven’t checked that figure, but I’m sure that our historical society will be glad to confirm or deny that figure. What I can certainly confirm is the fact that Governor Howard was placing advertisements in the newspaper seeking the return of his runaway slave:
And, here are some others according to the Maryland Archives:
For those who discount this as simply something from the 1800s that doesn’t affect our lives today, you might be interested in knowing that there are African Americans young and old here who are very well aware of the history of George Howard. And though it may not mean anything to YOU that his name is symbolic of the stain of forefathers who helped build this place, it means a great deal to them. Just because you don’t see a story in mainstream media telling you that there are African Americans in the community that refuse to hold Black History Month events in the George Howard Building, doesn’t mean that it isn’t “a thing” here. I’m here to tell you, that it’s A Thing.
Now, I’m not exactly saying that the building name should be removed. Personally, I prefer seeing and experiencing reality, even if it’s an unpleasant one. I wince when I walk into the building because of the name, but I don’t have to work there. The folks in the Commission that named the building, and I have no clue who they were because I’ve only been able to find that it was under Exec Ed Cochran’s watch when the building got dedicated in 1978, certainly had their reasons for doing so. It will likely be very interesting to note that perhaps as a sign of the times, a book published in 1972 by our Historical Society and a Charles Francis Stein, Jr. had the following to say about negroes:
“..it was found that, if given their freedom and thrown upon their own resources, the negroes were unable to support themselves and got into trouble. At this time the negroes were actual jungle cannibals knowing nothing of the ways of civilization.” (Pg 22, writing about slavery in Virginia, see reference below. Book can be found in most branches of our library system)
The book goes on to talk about the winters being too brutal for negroes, that being the reason why Anne Arundel and Howard County have predominantly white populations. I’m not advocating that the book be removed from the library, because once again, history is what it is unless you whitewash it and attempt to act as if things didn’t happen the way they did.
What I do personally advocate for is that Howard County get better at embracing realities and truths instead of ignoring them as if we live in LaLaLand. Howard County has a rich and robust history, some of which is great and some of it is horrible. In this regard, we are no different than many other places in the United States. In the quest for AAA bond ratings for investors and making this place appear to the outside world to be something it isn’t (perfect), we further alienate members of the community who are scratching their heads in confusion wondering why they have to play along with the charade when their reality doesn’t match up with the advertisements.
And please do consider that as you interface with your neighbors who are different than you, and who have different experiences than you. Because, just as those of us of color are so 365 days of the year, nor are the experiences usually relegated to just one isolated instance. So, if our legislative headquarters in the County Seat for Howard County (very clearly, Ellicott City) is going to have George Howard’s name on it, then we should also do a better job of embracing the legacy of slavery that is also part of what built Howard County. Contact the Equal Justice Inititative or the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, because I believe they have a memorial with Jacob’s name on it that should be claimed by us. P.S. Anyone having copies of Howard District Press, please let our Historical Society have them long enough for them to at least scan them so that this missing time period can be accessed by those of us writing about it 😉