Working together

Center, Dr. Joan M. E. Gaither, documentary story quilter, helps, left to right, Aquila Turner, 18, Lothian,Ranaldo Brown, 18, Edgewater, Jerome Harper, 17, Lothian, and Delonte Randall, 18, as they work on a quilt. The Southern High School students are making the tapestry honoring Lothian Rosenwald School in their African-American history class. Their classmates and students in other schools are working on quilts depicting the history of other Rosenwald Schools in Anne Arundel County. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun / March 22, 2012)

Outhouses. Potbellied stoves. Four-mile walks in the snow. These are legacies of the Rosenwald Schools.

For the past several weeks, county students have been studying the schools, a loosely affiliated network for African-American children that a white businessman, Julius Rosenwald, helped start with a grant in 1917. Twenty-three would spring up in Anne Arundel County alone.

But what fascinated history students at North County High School in Glen Burnie and Southern High School in Harwood were the minutiae -- where children went to the bathroom, how they stayed warm and got to school, and what their classrooms looked like.

They've woven images of such matters into colorful "story quilts" -- historical records-in-fabric that members of the public will be able to see, touch and add to in one of nearly 40 events the Four Rivers Heritage Area is sponsoring as part of its countywide celebration of Maryland Day this weekend.

"We've planned a broad array of activities that are not usually offered to the public," said Carol Benson, executive director of Four Rivers Heritage, a nonprofit consortium of historic sites, museums and heritage-related businesses in Annapolis and southern Anne Arundel County. "They're not going to be held on just one street or one street corner but all over [the county]. It will be a collaborative way for families to come out and explore the area's history and heritage."

Marylanders have been celebrating Maryland Day since 1903, when the state's board of education decided to set aside March 25 as a day to recall the founding of Maryland. The founding occurred, scholars believe, sometime in late March of 1634, when passengers aboard two ships sent from England reached what is now St. Mary's County and disembarked to erect a stone cross on St. Clement's Island.

The state's history has been sprawling and multifacted since then, a fact that will be more than evident in a series of events throughout the county over three days this weekend.

"We wish people could go to every venue, but that won't be possible," Benson said. "We think it's a good problem to have."

Four Rivers celebrated its own 10th anniversary last fall, and when officials sat down around that time to award tens of thousands of dollars' worth of mini-grants for 2012, it became clear that a trend was under way. Volunteers at several sites have become interested in creating documentary quilts as a means of chronicling history.

Benson said they were inspired by Joan Gaither, an Anne Arundel artist-historian who has gained acclaim in recent years for creating quilts that have weave fabric, artifacts, pictures and words into visual and tactile recordings of topics that include the history of African-American watermen on the Cheseapeake Bay and Barack Obama's march to the White House.

"There's something comforting about sewing -- the rhythm, the sense of people working together," Gaither said.

"It's about making something with your hands but running your mouth, sharing your own stories, at the same time. It ends up being a wonderful process of documenting."

On Sunday, visitors will have a chance to see such quilts being made -- and take part in the process -- at several sites. At the Historic Annapolis Foundation, the nonprofit Annapolis Tapestries Inc. will display a quilt on the city's history to which 300 stitchers have contributed.

Guests may add stitching to one unfinished panel -- no experience required, Benson said (99 Main St., Annapolis, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.).

At Historic London Town and Gardens, students from South River High School will exhibit "Our Common Threads: Connecting The Heritage of Forgotten Voices at London Town," a quilt they've nearly completed.

It recalls the Anne Arundel County Almshouse, a facility that was built on the South River site to shelter and give work to the poor and that remained in use from 1823 to 1965 (noon to 4 p.m.).

And the students from North County and Southern high schools have been interviewing elderly county residents over the past several weeks, probing their memories about the Rosenwald Schools many attended and taught at long ago, some as far back as 1940.

Most were amazed to learn, among other things, that pupils walked for miles to get to school, that potbellied stoves provided what heat they had and that in the absence of electricity, the buildings had tall windows designed to maximize the warming effects of sunlight, said Genevieve Kaplan, public programs manager at the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis, which backed the project.

Thanks to modern technology, Kaplan said, it's possible to scan historic photos onto special fabric sheets, which can then be ironed onto the tapestries. The students in the project found images of the windows, stoves, even the outhouses pupils used, Kaplan said. They've stitched those images into place on six 3-by-3-foot quilts.