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Celebrating a milestone: Prince George's Country, Md, has a strong black legacy in its 300-year history.

What's the big deal about Prince George's county celebrating its 300-year history? For most of us, it would go unnoticed, except that "P.G.," as it's sometimes referred to by locals, is the most affluent county for African Americans in the U.S. Although just across the line from Washington, D.C., Prince George's is steeped in its own black history.

The area was first inhabited by Native Americans. The first European, Capt. John Smith came to southern Maryland in 1608. By 1695, 1,600 to 1,700 people had settled in farms and plantations in the area along the Patuxent and Potomac rivers. This led Gov. Francis Nicholson and the General Assembly to establish a new county, Prince George's--named for Prince George of Denmark--on April 23, 1696.

By 1860, black people made up almost 60% of Prince George's population; 90% were slaves, brought to the predominantly agricultural county to work the local tobacco plantations. As a border state, Maryland never formally seceded from the Union, although the majority of its "landed gentry" owned slaves. Prince George's also served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. But Emancipation didn't take place in Maryland until a new state constitution was drawn up in 1864 and went into effect the following year.

"Coming out of slavery, most [African Americans] were sharecroppers," explains Bianca Floyd, author of Records and Recollections: Early Black History in Prince George's County, Maryland. "Some moved but most stayed, just as in the other Southern states," she adds. Those who didn't move to the nearby towns of Washington or Baltimore formed some of the earliest black communities in the state. Today, these communities are enjoying a renaissance.

Behind the popular affluent new suburb of Lake Arbor in the Mitchellville section of the county are a small cluster of restored tenant cottages once inhabited by slaves and later by freed sharecroppers. "It would be fair to say that the sons and daughters of slaves who formerly lived here have now returned and are living on the land of their ancestors," says Floyd.

In the early 1900s, African Americans began building communities around the perimeter of D.C., in Prince George's. Among the first was the town of Fairmont Heights, created by two white land speculators on former farmland. They sold the lots primarily to African Americans who worked in the District, which is still largely the case today. "Most blacks lived, and still live, around the perimeter of Washington in the southeastern and northeastern quadrants of the District," says Pat Sluby, a local black historian. Many of these P.G. homeowners commute into Washington to work.

Fairmont Heights has the distinction of being associated with William Pittman, one of this country's early black architects, a graduate of Tuskegee and later the son-in-law of Booker T. Washington. Pittman worked with the land speculators and consulted with Washington in the planning and development of an "ideal community" for blacks. Most of these early families worked for government agencies; for many families the same could be said today. Pittman's former residence on Eastern Avenue in Fairmont Heights, built in 1907, remains standing today.

Other historically black communities in Prince George's County include Rossville, North Brentwood, Lincoln and Seat Pleasant. Towns still popular with middle-class African American families include Capitol Heights, Glenarden, Oxon Hill, Lanham and Landover, Md.

While there was an outmigration of blacks from the '20s through the '50s from Prince George's county, the '60s through the late '80s saw a resurgence of African Americans returning to the county. "In the late '80s, it [P.G.] really became the place to go and the numbers of African Americans here greatly increased," says Vernice Woodland, who came to the area in the early '80s and is working on a video about historic African American communities in the area for a local community college. Similarly, the African American Heritage Survey will be published later this year by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission. According to the project's coordinator, Susan Pearl, the book will focus on and catalog over 100 African American sites of historical and architectural significance. The project is a continuation of a black history survey begun in 1982. Such sites include Abraham Hall, built in 1889 by the Sons and Daughters of Abraham, a black benevolent society. Recently restored, it reopened in Rossville in 1991.

While more nonblack history has been formally preserved, there is a renewed interest in identifying and preserving the county's African American past. "We need to have historically designated African American sites so that others can appreciate the history we have in this county," says relative newcomer, Lucenia Dunn, who left the crowded confines of Washington for the P.G. suburbs. "I wanted to put my daughter in a good public school, and Eleanor Roosevelt H.S. is one of the best magnet schools in the country. I wanted a house with lots of land, and to feel psychologically comfortable. Besides, I'm not far from the city so I can have the country and urban life at the same time," she says.

For the same reasons, younger families, like that of legal assistant Adrianne Ransom and her three-year-old son, Omar, have left the city for the suburbs. "I love it," exclaims Ransom. "Although I wasn't raised in the suburbs, I feel comfortable with my son in the suburbs. I take the Metro into work; it only takes 20 minutes and costs about $30 per week, including parking. So I don't mind it because I can get into town so easily. I don't want to move back to the city," she adds.

With more people like Ransom moving into the county, African Americans, at 51% of the population, once again hold a slight majority. As a result, the county has recently elected a number of African American firsts in its history: the first black county executive, Wayne K. Curry; Jerome Clark, superintendent of the county's schools; Jack Johnson, state attorney general; and first black representative, Congressman Al Wynn.

Besides politics, some of the new history and sights being created in P.G. include a theme restaurant by Black Entertainment Television, BET Soundstage, opening in October. There's also a tribute to Negro League baseball, "Rough Diamonds: The Mid-Atlantic Negro Leagues and Sandlot Heroes," which will be on display outside the Prince George's Stadium during the April-to-September season of the area's minor league team, the Bowie Baysox. Other tricentennial African American events include: the African American Arts Festival, April 12-21, at the University of Maryland; "One More River To Cross," an exhibit of historic photographs documenting the black experience, at the New Carrollton Library; and two Juneteenth celebrations, one at Bowie State and another at the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.

If you're journeying to the D.C.-Maryland area this summer, take the "Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas Driving Tour," which runs through the Patuxent River Park, suggests author and historian Bianca Floyd. The park itself features a relocated and restored colonial village, including a slave cabin. Also in the park is an exhibit commemorating the Columbia Air Center, the first black-owned and -operated airfield in the county. Another attraction, Ridgley Chapel, one of the area's early black churches, sits near the Capitol Center, home of the Washington Bullets.

But if you expect to see an organized black historical tour, the county's not there yet. "People make a mistake if they compare African American historic sites to Colonial Williamsburg," cautions Floyd, "but I think the quality of life rivals that anywhere. If you want to see African American history past and in the making, you should come to P.G."
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Author:Alexander, Marcus
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Apr 1, 1996
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