BERLIN – Worcester County’s little known African-American history could be further revealed through a heritage and tourism research project if the county towns can come up with the funds.
No one has told the story of African-American culture and history in Worcester County, county NAACP President Eddie Lee told the Berlin Mayor and Council at their meeting Monday night.
Berlin and Pocomoke City have pledged their support to the project so far, which needs about $60,000 to pay well-known African American history scholar Dr. Clara Smalls of Salisbury University to delve into Worcester County’s African American past as the first stage in developing local black history and new heritage tourism opportunities.
That research would open the door to further funding, Lee felt.
“There is a large amount of money out there to do this project,” he said.
Organizers are hoping each of the four municipalities in Worcester County can come up with about $15,000 to pay for their share of the work.
If Worcester County’s African-American history remains murky, said Lee, local blacks will be remembered about as well as the Pocomoke Indians.
“Something might get named after us,” Lee said.
Names are all that remain of the Pocomoke Indians, Lee said. “All we have now is the Pocomoke River,” he said.
“One of the things we need to embrace is, it’s our history,” said Pocomoke City Mayor Mike McDermott, appearing at the Berlin Mayor and Council meeting in support of the project.
About eight years ago, the African-American Heritage Committee put out a brochure detailing major figures and events of black history in Worcester County, a successful publication that was recognized by the state.
“People were picking that brochure up and wanted to know, where are these sites?” said African American history enthusiast Gabe Purnell.
Currently, there is little means to direct visitors as well as residents, Purnell said.
“We don’t have documentation. We don’t have sites people can visit,” said Purnell.
Worcester County can offer the Sturgis One Room schoolhouse in Pocomoke City, an African-American school, while the Germantown School has recently come into the hands of the African-American community. The Calvin B. Taylor House museum has some items related to African-American history.
“We don’t really have a handle on Dr. [Charles] Tindley’s life here in Berlin,” said Purnell. “He’s world known because of ‘We Shall Overcome.’”
Even devotees of African-American history like Purnell know little about some aspects of the community’s past.
The Underground Railroad ran through the tiny hamlet of Taylorville, Purnell said, but few in Berlin know it.
“We don’t know enough. We don’t know where people came from. We don’t know why they left,” McDermott said.
“We really need this information to become in the public domain where it can be accessed by our students, people who live here. There’s a rich history we’re missing out on,” Purnell said.
The history everyone knows about, the 600 black Civil War veterans from Worcester County, the Tuskegee Airmen from Pocomoke City, is nothing but a brochure without the documentation, according to McDermott.
The idea of setting down the history of African-Americans in Worcester County is wonderful in and of itself, McDermott said, and worthy of funding, but it would also draw visitors out of Ocean City and bring economic benefits to the county.
“It’s an investment we can see already how it would make a difference,” McDermott said.
By 2009, the organizers would like to see at least six African American history heritage tours scheduled, including visits to relevant sites, perhaps a play on black history at the MarVa theater, and a catered meal.
Lee has visions of more than simply an African-American history heritage trail.
“I see the firm foundation somewhere for an African American museum second to none on the Eastern Shore,” Lee said.
Before a museum can be thought of, money must be found to get the work started.
“Berlin is challenged [financially], I can tell you that,” said Berlin Mayor Tom Cardinale. “I’ll do everything I can.”
“I hope that Berlin can do something,” Councilman Elroy Brittingham said.
Councilman Dean Burrell was excited by the concept.
“The possible outcome of an endeavor of this nature can impact our cultural awareness, our standing in the state,” said Burrell. “Above all, it would ultimately benefit our children.”
Brittingham made a motion to support the project, without pledging any dollar amount in support before budget deliberations are complete, which was met with unanimous support from the town council.