County's black history discussed

Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2009

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Staff photos by DARWIN WEIGEL
Longtime Calvert County educator and historian Russell Costley spoke about his time in the public school system when Calvert County schools were integrated in 1966.

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Calvert County Commissioners President Wilson Parran spoke about his experiences growing up in Calvert County and attending a segregated high school.

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Calvert County historic preservation planner Kirsti Uunila spoke about the emerging history of African Americans in the county at the symposium on African American involvement in Calvert County.

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Middleham and St. Peter's Parish held a 325th anniversary symposium on African American involvement in Calvert County on Sunday in its great hall in Lusby.

When Abraham Lincoln ran for president in 1860, he received one vote from Calvert County.

This was stated by Calvert County Board of County Commissioners' President Wilson Parran at Middleham and St. Peter's Parish 325th Anniversary Symposia Series titled "Excavating the Past — Exploring the Future: Appreciating the Involvement of African-Americans in the Evolving Life of Calvert County."

"I'm not sure how many votes he'd receive if he ran today; I think someone said ‘two,'" joked Parran at Sunday's event held at the Lusby parish.

Jokes aside, Parran also used his address to point out a few "slices of history," that have led to where the black community is today: the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision; the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision; and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

These defining U.S. Supreme Court rulings, Parran said, "Shaped us as a country and what [it means] to be African-American."

Parran, who said he agreed with a quote from documentary filmmaker Ken Burns that "in terms of taking a slice of history, you've got to look at the Civil War," also pointed out the role the church played in the Calvert County black community after the war.

"The ministers inspired the need for education for former slaves," said Parran, who referenced Mt. Hope United Methodist Church in Sunderland and St. Edmonds United Methodist Church in Chesapeake Beach as a few of the post-civil war parishes to include schools and community centers on their properties.

When it comes to church, Parran said that society still has a ways to go.

"It doesn't take you long to see which is the white church and which is the black church … The next defining moment may be desegregated churches on Sunday morning," Parran said.

Retired Calvert County public schools teacher Russell Costley also spoke at the symposium and highlighted the transformation from segregated to desegregated schools in Calvert County.

He said he first began his Calvert County teaching career at William Sampson Brooks High School, which educated black students in Calvert County from 1938 to 1966 until students were integrated into Calvert High School.

Costley said that when he first arrived in Calvert County in the 1960s, as a black man he was not allowed to attend Christ Church in St. Leonard, which made him unsure if Calvert was where he should begin his career.

"I had reservations about staying, but I think God had a plan for my life," he said, continuing that through community and teaching at Brooks, "Calvert County became my home and I am so happy to be here."

Seeing the daily home lives of his students was often shocking and saddening to Costley, who said, "I had never seen people in tar shacks like chicken coups; I cried many times because this is not how I realized some people lived.

" … But they came [to school] and you were able to teach them and they progressed despite the odds," Costley said.

Integration was a complicated process that, according to Costley, students often handled better than adults. "The students handled things beautifully for the most part," said Costley, who added that integrated sports teams in particular were often "able to be a buffer for things that could have happened."

Some transitions, however, were more difficult, he said, citing the first black valedictorians as something not particularly well received by the school community. Costley even said that at one point, members of a graduation committee tried to enforce a new alphabetical order rule so that a black valedictorian, whose last name was late in the alphabet, entered the ceremony toward the end of the line.

As head of the graduation committee, Costley said he intervened and the valedictorian, "went in at the front of her class like valedictorians should."

Calvert County historic preservation planner Kirsti Uunila and Episcopal Diocese of Maryland representative Mary Klein also spoke at the symposium.

Klein discussed the role of the Episcopal church in the lives of black people in Calvert County dating back to the late 1700s when she said that almost all clergymen were slave owners and half the people in Calvert County were slaves.

"Calvert County, of all the counties in Maryland, was a totally agricultural county," Klein said, adding that by the mid 1800s, a growing portion of the black community was able to be confirmed, despite still being slaves.

"The telling thing about being confirmed is it meant you were a member … it meant you could receive communion and that meant everything," Klein said.

She added, however, that when it came to church ceremonies such as baptisms, marriages, burials and confirmations, "we don't know all the background information; all we know are the statistics."

Uunila said that much of the history of black people in Calvert County is still present in facilities like the recently restored Old Wallville School in Prince Frederick, which was used for segregated black students from the 1880s through 1934.

She also referenced the William Poe book "African-Americans in Calvert County," as a way in which, "we can still see the legacy of slavery.

" … We are fortunate to have so many others and others in our counties who have kept history alive … and we must learn from it," Uunila said. "We are hopeful and we hope you realize it won't happen without you."