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  • Alex Glass, Patricia Samford, and Scott Strickland

Witnesses of Wallville: Documenting a Rural Southern Maryland Community.

Following the Civil War, newly emancipated Black Marylanders found themselves negotiating a world filled with both opportunities and constraints. In southern Maryland, freed families formed more than half of the population and yet struggled against White efforts to perpetuate antebellum systems of labor. The Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum’s (JPPM) “Witnesses of Wallville” project, working with descendants, is articulating that history through a focus on Wallville, a small rural community in Calvert County. Through examining the social and economic history of Wallville’s Black citizens, as well as the important roles played by churches, schools, fraternal organizations, and extended family, the project explores how the community’s Black residents crafted new lives and new possibilities even as they confronted racism and bigotry well into the mid-twentieth century. Drawing on archeological, documentary, and oral history sources, this project gives voice to both the ancestors and descendants of four prominent and interconnected Black families in this community. This evidence is being used by the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum to prepare a synthetic history of the southern portion of this community, the preparation of interpretive materials, and collaboration with descendants of the Wallville community.

The “Witnesses of Wallville” project, supported in part by an African American Civil Rights grant from the Historic Preservation Fund administered by the National Park Service, Department of the Interior, began in the fall of 2022.  One of the first priorities was to form a steering committee comprised of descendants of the families being studied. Project staff meet monthly with the steering committee to share progress and to explore additional research topics important to the descendant community. Consisting of seven descendants and former residents, the committee has provided valuable guidance on the directions taken by the project research, as well as first hand historical information about the community. While using previously gathered Southern Maryland oral histories had always been an important part of the project, the steering committee felt that it was critical to gather additional oral histories from aging former residents. Since the spring of 2023, eight oral histories have been conducted with transcriptions and copies of the recordings being provided to the individuals interviewed. Two of three community meetings have been held, with good attendance and input gathered from a wider range of interested individuals. Other project work has included recording family and church cemeteries, recording historic structures, and assembling family trees for thirteen Black and White families of Wallville. Visits to local, state, and national archives have allowed the project staff to compile large quantities of documentation for the community, aiding in the compilation of a community history.

Archeology was always envisioned as an important part of this project. Historic maps and census records, as well as oral history accounts of former residents and their family members, indicate at least five post-bellum Black-occupied sites on the grounds of the JPPM, with others located on a nearby privately-owned land parcel. These sites have been located and recorded using a combination of archeological and historical research. In the late summer and fall of 2023, archeological testing was conducted at five late nineteenth- to mid-twentieth-century sites associated with Black Wallville residents.

Although analysis is still ongoing, preliminary conclusions can be drawn from archeological work. The tested sites associated with postbellum Black farmers and watermen are located on small knolls overlooking streams and creeks. Photographs and archeological results suggest that these homes were two stories, with small footprints (since the most expensive component of a house is its roof, creating a smaller footprint was a way to keep construction costs lower). These frame houses rested on either piers or continuous foundations built using local stone gathered from outcrops adjacent to the waterways. Chimneys tended to be constructed with locally sourced stone bases and brick stacks. Analysis of artifacts from the sites shows that oysters formed an important part of the diets of Wallville residents; not surprising since many of the residents supplemented their farming income through oystering, as shown in documentary records and oral histories. Canning jars and stoneware storage crocks indicate that residents were putting up food grown on their farms and were only purchasing items at local stores that they could not grow or prepare themselves—like baking powder, cosmetics, medicine, and alcohol.

By the mid-twentieth century, many Black residents were gone from Wallville.  They left for a variety of reasons—increasing property taxes, changes in the oystering industry, the closure of St. Luke’s Church, and for better employment opportunities. Much of the Wallville diaspora began in earnest during the Great Depression, which was also a contributing factor to the selling of large waterfront tracts of land throughout southern Maryland to individuals with little or no pre-existing connection to the landscape. Some residents stayed nearby, moving a few miles north to be closer to Brooks Church and Cemetery (where many Wallville residents are interred), while others moved to Annapolis, Baltimore, or Washington DC.

Figure 1. Steering committee members Sonseeahray Hopkins (left) and Chester Gross (middle) confer with Tom Parran (right) about places of interest on a map of the Wallville community.

The data recovered is being used to create a portrait of Wallville and the factors that influenced its changing demographics over eight decades following the Civil War. JPPM has plans to create a large onsite exhibit on the Wallville community and has created a StoryMap, Witnesses of Wallville.

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