AfriGeneas States Research Forum
[MD] African American Genealogist's Tours
Saw this in this morning's Washington Post and thought it might be of interest to people researching Maryland.
After an eight-hour bus ride last week, the tour group from New Ebenezer Baptist Church in Florence, S.C., finally had reached Annapolis, and its members began to file into the Stanton Community Center. Janice Hayes Williams ushered her guests, all of them senior citizens, into a classroom on the building's second floor.
"I think it's important to start where we came from," Williams said, diving right into the African American Heritage Tour she has been offering for the past three summers in Annapolis, after years of research. She told the visitors that they were sitting at the site of the old Stanton School, built for black students in 1865. It was a place where children spent their days learning the alphabet, where adults came after work at night to learn to read the Bible.
For too long, Williams said, sites such as this have been left out of walking tours of Annapolis, the first peacetime capital of the United States (1783-84). "People want to hear about the other side," she said. "They're tired of hearing about dead white men. They want to hear about dead black men that have made contributions."
What began as a labor of love for Williams has grown into a summer vocation. Two years ago, she gave her tours to city tourism experts and curious historians by appointment only. Last summer, she began offering them to the public in her spare time for $10 per adult and $5 per child. Today, there is so much interest in the tours that groups such as the one from South Carolina travel specifically to see Williams.
To make their journeys worthwhile, she occasionally hires actors to perform skits at some of her tour stops. If the interest keeps up, she plans to hire and train several additional tour guides and actors for next summer, she said.
In an hour and 20 minutes, Williams covers a wide range of black history -- from the city's first African American church to the site of an old hotel where music legend Billie Holiday used to sing. Other stops include the former homes of some of Maryland's largest slave owners.
"Even though it may not be happy, you still need to know this," James Johnson, 71, one of the South Carolina visitors, said of the tour's mention of slave owners. "If you don't know where you come from, you don't know where you are going."
Part of the reason Williams, 45, is working so hard to preserve Annapolis's black history is that much of it is her own family's history. Her great-grandfather was a well-known fish merchant on the Annapolis City Dock.
Williams grew up at 110 South St., in her grandmother's three-story Victorian home.
For years, after she married and moved to Glen Burnie, Williams left her memories of early Annapolis untouched. She had two children and worked 21 years as a contract negotiator for NASA and private firms. Then, in 1988, while recovering from intestinal cancer, she began researching her genealogy. She learned that her grandmother was the niece of Wally H. Bates, a prominent early African American from Annapolis.
Soon, she became consumed with her research, spending early mornings and late nights reading old newspaper clippings, historical narratives and other documents at the Maryland State Archives.
Williams was so fascinated by the information she uncovered that she began to write plays chronicling Maryland's black history. Meanwhile, other longtime city historians recognized her passion and sent her any tidbits they stumbled upon while doing their own research. Williams pieced the history together, using the documents to connect with her memories from growing up.
Then, one day a few years ago, she served as a chaperone on a children's field trip through historic downtown Annapolis. She was disappointed by how little of African American heritage was mentioned. So Williams hatched the idea of doing black history tours on her own.
"Annapolis is my home town forever, and it gives me great joy to weave these stories together," she said. "I just thought the story was much too compelling to keep to ourselves."
Her passion has inspired the Anne Arundel County Convention & Visitors Bureau, which this summer released its own brochure with a detailed map and list of black historical sites in the region. In recent years, the visitors bureau has received an increasing number of calls from people curious about the city's black heritage, said Melanie Suggs, president of the bureau.
"What we're finding is people are traveling because they want a unique experience," Suggs said. "We have a unique experience that we haven't been talking about."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company