Diane Caslow, and her sister, explore the Belair Stable Museum, 2017.

Journey Through Maryland History: More than a Passing Glance in Prince George’s County

02/27/2017
By Preservation Maryland

If you follow our blog, you may remember that the Preservation Maryland Board Vice President Diane Caslow has a goal to travel to all of Maryland’s twenty-four counties in the next twenty-four months. And her adventure continues with a look at the African American history of Prince George’s County:

MORE FROM BOARD VP, DIANE CASLOW

Our fifth county on our twenty-four month adventure to explore each of the counties in Maryland was Prince George’s County. If you are following this blog, you may notice that I have to have a theme and find some unique angle from which to explore the county. I found a lot on the Prince George’s County tourism website, but the African American Heritage Sites guide intrigued me with a simple paragraph in the introduction…..”Take a closer look at the buildings and sites associated with African Americans that have been overshadowed by grander buildings with extensive landscapes.  On a comfortably paces tour that you design, you can engage these sites on their own terms and develop a deeper appreciation of buildings, places and neighborhoods that frequently receive only a passing glance.

We decided to give them more than a passing glance, and glad we did!

First, a disclaimer, I have roped my husband Jeff into this adventure for the duration and decided that it was hard enough to navigate and negotiate an adventure with just two people, let alone bringing others along. I made one exception as my sister Debbie was visiting from upstate New York.  I gave her strict instructions that she was to be just a passenger and enjoy the trip as there was only one navigator and one driver on these adventures. Once she settled into her role after distracting me one too many times, she had as much fun, and maybe even more, than we did!

RELGIOUS PROPERTIES

We decided to follow the guide mostly down the eastern side of the county, starting with a number of churches and meeting houses. St. Mark’s Methodist Church in Laurel, built in 1891, now sits on a very busy road and is hardly noticed by the cars speeding by. Queen’s Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church site and cemetery abuts a massive and fairly new housing development, but down the country road we find nestled in the trees, Abraham Hall. A wonderful set of historical markers tell the story of the Hall, an example of a late 19th century benevolent society lodge.

It is not an adventure without getting lost, and we did trying to find Dorsey Chapel in Glenn Dale. It is a small, meeting-house style church built in 1900. As we peered inside, we tried to image what it might have been like to sit in one of those pews well over a hundred years ago.

PLANTATION PATTERNS AT BELAIR MANSION

From Glenn Dale, we headed further south and stopped for lunch at a very busy shopping center on our way towards Bowie. We arrive at Belair Mansion, now surrounded by major suburban communities that were built after World War II by none other than William Levitt, credited as the father of American suburbia. The Belair Mansion, built in 1747, served as the home of Provincial Governor Samuel Ogle, and the focal point of a large plantation, showing the stark difference between the lives of the plantation owners and the slave population. The interpreter’s guide in the basement gives us a sober history lesson.

Another of the interesting parts of the tour is the Belair Stable Museum, thought to be the cradle of American horse racing. There was a great African American jockey exhibit and a very knowledgeable docent. Fifteen of the twenty-eight first Kentucky Derbies were won by African Americans, a history nearly forgotten. We color our own racing stripes, an activity provided for children of all ages.

 

EXPLORING UPPER MARLBORO

We continued south to Upper Marlboro to check out the historic community that is among the oldest of surviving southern Maryland towns settled in 1695. It was a port town for tobacco shipment when the western branch of the Patuxent River was still navigable for tobacco vessels. It has been the county seat of Prince George’s County since 1721. You can see the old, new and rehabbed all mixed together in the town center.

It is too late in the day for us to make it to Columbia Air Center further south, which was the first black owned airfield in Maryland.

Instead, we head back up the road to Blacksox Park in Bowie. It was home to the Mitchellville Tigers and the Baltimore Black Sox, teams playing there from the 1930s to the 1970s. On a balmy February day you can almost feel that it is time for spring baseball.

We did not get to the sites furthest south or on the western part of the county; that will have to be for another day.  As we headed home, we were glad that we gave these heritage sites more than a passing glance and came away with a better appreciation for the rich history of African Americans in Prince George’s County.

Next month is Caroline County, our own March Madness, marching down Main Streets.

COUNTY-BY-COUNTY INSTALLMENTS

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