Old City, Fresh Look

She remembers having "wonderful" history teachers growing up in 1940s and 1950s Annapolis, and she has explored and chronicled this area's past for more than 40 years.

But as historian Jane Wilson McWilliams researched her massive, colorful and comprehensive new book, "Annapolis: City on the Severn," she sometimes found herself stunned to encounter truths about her hometown she'd never run across.

If you did your high school history homework, for instance, you know the 15th Amendment to the Constitution (passed in 1870) guarantees every citizen the right to vote regardless of "race, color or previous condition of servitude" (read: slavery).

But did you know that the powers that be in Annapolis violated that law in 1908, denying most of the city's black men the right to vote for seven years?

McWilliams didn't.

"I had never heard a single word of any of that before, and it shocked me," says the author, who covers those developments in Chapter 7 of her book — a lavishly illustrated volume the region's scholars are calling the first comprehensive history of the state capital since the late 1880s.

"There have been many, many books on the history of Annapolis, but most have been mere crutches for glossy photographs," says Greg Stiverson, president of the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation and onetime head of the Historical Annapolis Foundation. "Amazing as it seems, the last attempt [at a comprehensive history] was Elihu Riley's 'The Ancient City' in 1887. [McWilliams' book] fills a vacuum that has been there for more than a century."

McWilliams, a former employee of the state archives who has written four previous books, worked full time on this one for 12 years. Stiverson calls it "a monumental achievement that will stand for decades," and Orlando Ridout, an architectural historian for the state, says "in a week's time, it has already established itself as the bible."

If that's the case, it's not just because "Annapolis: City on the Severn" boasts fresh material, contains hundreds of previously unpublished photos and other art, or has a surprisingly reader-friendly style, given its vast detail and scholarly approach (90 of its 479 pages are for endnotes).

It's because it weaves a tale of the city's past, from 1649 through the 1970s, that unites long-disparate strands in a way no book before it has.

As McWilliams' labor of love — a publication by the Johns Hopkins University Press and the Maryland Historical Trust Press, funded mainly through grants by the Maryland Historical Trust began hitting local stores and last week, she took time out from a slate of appearances to speak with The Baltimore Sun.

How did you get interested in local history?

I grew up in Bay Ridge, a block from where I live now. My father was with the electric company, and he traveled all over the county. My mother was a librarian who drove one of the early bookmobiles. At the dinner table, they'd talk about what was going on in the county. It fascinated me.

Some of your colleagues call your book a "life's achievement." How did it all start?

Well, as long ago as the late '60s, I worked with Ed Papenfuse [now the state archivist] on a project called the Annapolis Lot Histories. [We had] a tax assessment list from 1783, and we used it to determine who owned what in the "old city," who lived where, what the value of every property was between 1718 and 1800.

That material is in the archives of the Historic Annapolis Foundation. People still use it to research their properties.

Scholars say it was useful in creating a basis for a history of the city. Did it bring history to life?

Oh, you could investigate all sorts of things: Who was where, doing what? What sorts of businesses were on which side of town? I can tell you that [Declaration of Independence signer] Samuel Chase lived on West Street for a while, in what is now the Rams Head Tavern building. He never lived in the dream house he built, the Chase-Lloyd House [on Maryland Avenue]. He didn't marry money, you know. His finances were never too great.

How did you get the idea to do "Annapolis, City on the Severn"?

It wasn't my idea. It came from the Annapolis History Consortium [a local group of about 100 professional and amateur historians]. Back in the 1990s, people were expressing concern that the last comprehensive history was Elihu Riley's.

There have been many good neighborhood histories and other histories that explore particular topics. But I remember Eric Smith, the cartoonist and columnist for the Evening Capital, writing a column in March of 1999 saying, "Why don't we have a decent history of the city? This is ridiculous." The consortium agreed. I was crazy enough to say I'd do it.

How do you begin a project this big?

I needed to establish what had been done, so I spent a year and a half putting together a bibliography [of everything published on Annapolis]. A friend and I looked at whatever we could find in any library within 30 miles. She called every organization in town — churches, banks, civic organizations — and asked if they had their own histories. If they did, we got them.

We found about 1,200 primary and secondary works. Pratt Library in Baltimore has a lot of very arcane, obscure things on the city. The Maryland Historical Society, too. Are you familiar with the state law library? What a great resource! We found some really cool stuff. I have quite a collection now.

The book is in chronological order. Did you proceed that way?

When I started out, I had a pretty good sense of the Colonial history, and I knew quite a bit about the 20th century, having lived through half of it. So I started in the middle, with the Civil War. It just seemed like a good place.

How did that work out?

In April, the consortium gave a theatrical production … called "Annapolis: A City Awakened by War." That's how things really happened. Here was this sleepy little Maryland town, and in April of 1861 — after the Union army learned they could no longer come through Baltimore — it was like, "Where are we going to go?"

Well, there just happened to be this little federal property on a rail line in Annapolis — 71/2 acres known as the U.S. Naval Academy. From that month through summer 1865, tens of thousands of soldiers came through. The town was overwhelmed.

At first, it was soldiers coming in to camps before going out [to battle] — 20,000 people camped out along West Street, toward Parole. Later you had sick, sick men being brought in — the wounded from battle, sick people who had been held in Southern prisons who were being exchanged [at Parole].

The streets aren't paved. It's dirt; it's mud. There's a good bit of crime. I couldn't find proof of prostitution, but I know it's there. It's hard to explain how incredibly difficult all this was for folks who lived in town.

How did the war shape city history?

This is true of all Maryland to an extent, but it was very true here: The men who went South were the brothers of men who stayed here ... but when your brother came home, even if he fought for the other side, he was generally your brother.

Emily Peake, the historian at St. Anne's Cemetery, has done a lot of research on the Civil War soldiers from Annapolis buried there. She believes — and we discussed this — that you have almost equal numbers from the North and South.

Another local gentleman, John Wissman, had been using old newspaper accounts to study celebrations of Decoration Day [now Memorial Day]. He believes that when Southern and Northern soldiers marched together in the parade in Annapolis [in 1886], it was the first time the two sides ever did that in the U.S. I think he's right.

You've called this project a "book by community." Are those examples?

Yes. From the start, the consortium members promised to help. Every single member shared their resources — notes, art, family histories, memories, anything I asked for. There are people all over town I could call on the phone and ask, "What do you know about such-and-such?" I'd run into people in line at Graul's who knew a lot about some particular thing and talk for an hour. I'm responsible for all the content, but it's a book by community.

You call Chapter 6 "Great Expectations, 1870-1908." The next chapter is "Promise Denied, 1908-1940." What did you mean?

There was great hopefulness after the Civil War, especially among African-Americans. If you were a free black man, you might have been free for three generations. Many made a lot of money during the war. You had people like William H. Butler, a prosperous carpenter whose house was next to City Hall and who owned a good bit of Market Street. He was the first black man elected to office in Maryland [in 1873, to the city council].

Blacks had very active churches — Mount Moriah, Asbury, First Baptist — social clubs like the Tarara Literary Society, dance classes. Families were living comfortably, sending their children away to school. There was a sense African-Americans were poised to take their places in what you might call the already established white culture.

What happened?

Jim Crow. It happened throughout the South, but in a particular way here in Maryland.

These new [black] voters were Republicans. The Democrats in the state weren't going to let this kind of political power go on. What was the quickest way to nip it?

All blacks had been able to vote since 1870, but in 1908, the Maryland General Assembly passed an amendment to the Annapolis city charter. Among other things, it said city residents had to have $500 worth of property in order to vote — and that you, your father or your grandfather had to have been eligible to vote on Jan. 1, 1868.

Well, the only people who could vote on that date were white! Suddenly all but about 100 of the 800 voting blacks in town were disenfranchised. This was never taught in white history.

Some important lawyers, including Charles Bonaparte, the secretary of the Navy, took up the case. The Supreme Court heard it in 1913, along with one involving the state of Oklahoma. The court handed down a decision in 1915: "You can't do this. The Constitution forbids it."

Did that whole idea originate within city government?

The city council minutes make no mention of it. I couldn't find the back story. I tried.

Did the injustice have lasting effects?

This is just my opinion — I don't touch on it much in the book — but we have racial prejudice in this town even today, and I believe some of it can be traced to that era. People get their history from their grandmothers. It permeates. And I believe 1908 is part of the collective genetic memory of the African-American community, more so even than [Butler's election] in 1873.

How has that kind of gap affected previous histories of the city?

What happened was that you've always had two parallel histories. Most who have written history have focused on the white side — often the stories of prominent white men. Mr. Philip L. Brown, who died just recently, wrote a very nice history ("The Other Annapolis," 1991) of black life in town. These [approaches] reflect the kinds of faces the town has wanted to put on itself. One reason I wrote the book was to thread the two together.

What was that process like for you?

It involved weaving more recent scholarship back through the Colonial era and beyond — and exploring both sides of more recent controversies. There were many moments where I ended up thinking, "Wow; these events were taking place at the same time, on parallel tracks." It was fascinating.

The urban renewal movement [1960-1975] exacerbated the divide. Up here around [Clay, Calvert and Larkin streets near West Street] was a neighborhood with a rich African-American culture. There were clubs that drew artists like Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald through the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. But people were also living in rented properties that lacked floors, running water, heat. This continued right into the 1960s.

City planners built far better public housing units for people, but the buildings were a mile and a half from downtown. There was no public transit. ... I believe those behind [urban renewal] had good intentions, but many in the African-American community are still convinced it was a deliberate effort [to marginalize blacks]. This was all very painful for me to write about.

Annapolis was chartered in 1708, and in the book, you take stock of where things were every 100 years. Here at the beginning of century four, what's the outlook?

Well, one thing has been productive: During the 1960s, Annapolis collectively realized that preserving its history could make it economically viable, and went in that direction. I call it the time Annapolis decided what kind of place it was going to be. There's a lot more interaction between the black and white communities today. But Annapolis is still two cities — three, including the growing Hispanic population.

Things are cyclical, though. Nothing is always on the upswing. We're a city that enjoys looking back, but that doesn't have to mean we're finished, does it?

How does it feel to see the book in print?

You have no idea [how good]. It's big, isn't it? When you put it down on a table, it makes a thump.

Book signing

Author Jane Wilson McWilliams will sign copies of "Annapolis: City on the Severn"

•7 p.m. on Thursday, June 2, at Back Creek Books, 45 West St., Annapolis

•7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 15, at Barnes and Noble Books, 2516 Solomons Island Road, Annapolis.

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