Brownsville: A Story Unknown . . .
On Christmas Eve, little Sylvia White watched as her brother lifted her sister up into the house because there were no steps in the home her parents had built. The sounds of children playing in the yard, the church choir singing, and laughter of the residents roasting hotdogs around the fire filled the air. “Living on Beall street was fun, everyone knew each other” –Sylvia White said. Sylvia sat and dreamed about the day she would be able to attend the one room school house that rested not too far from her home. Sylvia never got the chance. By the time she was of age the school property and the homes’ around the school were gone.
That school that Sylvia White excitedly wanted to attend was the Lincoln School (for Abraham Lincoln) or Normal School #2, known today as Frostburg State University. The surrounding area was known as Brownsville, named after Tamer Brown, the freed who that purchased the property in 1866 in order to educate the African American children in the area. In Tamer’s effort to give the children something that today many young people take for granted she inevitably gave the African American families of Frostburg a place to belong in the years after the Civil War.
For some it is very hard to imagine that any African Americans ever lived in this rural area, less a town of approximately 240 people. The town had over a hundred families, including the Williamses, the Whites, the Coles, and the Jacksons, to name a few. Tamer Brown shared her own home with eight others family members, one woman, three men, and four children. All of the people of Brownsville were threaded together through their love, family issues, dreams of equality, and life goals. One community, one family.
The power of segregation and racial hatred during this time prevented the town from looking for help, or resources from the surrounding white communities, making the residents very interdependent. This thriving community with book clubs, blues bands, restaurants, a playground and a church deserved to be preserved instead of taken and stashed away until society was ready to revisit it. Imagine spending years building your home from the ground up, starting a business in your basement, making lifetime friends and then one day it all comes to an end. Well that is pretty much what it was like for Brownsville residents when the state of Maryland bought their homes for no more than $10, in the late 1920’s to expand the Normal school. Yes, this action was to help the school expand and progress, but why couldn’t progress happen naturally through Brownsville?
This past school year, Frostburg State University had its highest enrollment rate in the institution 116-year history. A total of 5, 645 students walk this campus. The diversity continues to flourish with a huge increase in the African American student body from 16.6 to 28.8 percent since 2006. The look and feel of the university is changing, so in a sense, now is the perfect time to shed light on the history of what was, and what is still left of Brownsville. Each building on FSU campus is named after a person of significance to the school. William and Pansye Atkinson, an African American couple, for example, were hired as the Director of Black Admissions and Coordinator of Integration in 1969, when the university first began allowing African American students and staff. A room in the Lane Center was later named after them. With that being said one would think Tamer Brown and the town of Brownsville would fit that category of importance.
“Anytime our university was photographed and there was still remembrance of Brownsville, its like those remembrances are deliberately not shown in the shot . . .” says Dr. Armiento of the English department at FSU. The university didn’t begin to request information on the forgotten town until current FSU librarian MaryJo Price began working at the school in 1988. A still very racially afflicted city, MaryJo Price remembers the Ku Klux Klan vigorously picketing and verbally attacking the few African American residents on the corner of Main and Water Street. The year prior to MaryJo Price’s arrival the Washington Post published an article Allegations of Racism Stir Frostburg State University, discussing the school’s annual banquet where the Allegany County chapter of the NAACP awarded the Freedom Writers Award to Pansye Atkinson for her contribution to student life. In a twisted turn Atkinson was cited for her work in the school’s minority affairs office that had been abolished the year before. The school informed the black graduates that they were not to represent themselves as an official alumni group. Over time the presence of the university brought many African Americans to the city of Frostburg. Things do in fact change over time, however, the existence of racism still lingers in the air.
On a regular trip to the gym, Frostburg resident and professor in the Allegany college English department, Lynn Bowman asked a simple question that led to the disentanglement of the story behind Brownsville. The question she asked was in relation to the Harpers, the only well known black family to still reside in the cold streets of Frostburg. The answers she received, so unexpectedly turned into a book, Being Black in Brownsville: Echoes of a “Forgotten” Frostburg. “Whether a person has had a positive or negative reaction to the book, the conversation generated by the book has made people address subjects that were previously seldom discussed in an open forum in Frostburg” says Bowman about the impact of her book. The book has a variety of new information regarding the families of Brownsville including photos, deeds, census listings, and obituaries. The book also sheds light on the relationship between African Americans and Caucasians in the entire Appalachian area. An activist in her own right, Bowman has helped resurface the truth, but she cannot share this responsibility alone.
On Saturday, October 11th Frostburg State University held a dedication ceremony in honor of Brownsville. The ceremony included a host of Brownsville descendants and family members along with tours of the grounds where Brownsville used to be led by FSU students. Though the day was gloomy the ceremony brought light to the locals, travelers, and FSU students who sat in the audience. The sad part is Frostburg didn’t do that great of a job promoting the event as they would a Greek or Alumni function. “I only saw it on the Frostburg homepage, under events, but nothing else” Yarne White, senior and business administration major at FSU expresses pessimistically. Many students were not aware of the ceremony, or of Brownsville for that matter. “Feels like our history is hidden, well at least the black part of it . . . I really wish I knew about the ceremony,” said FSU student Simone Wise as she walked by.
At this moment the only remains of the Lincoln school is the plaque on the outside of the University Police station. The plaque reads, “In 1983, the Public Safety Building opened. This building was formerly the Lincoln School, a public school for African-American students”. The last homes standing of Brownsville were the White house, and the Harper house, which was just recently torn down in effort to build luxury apartments. The Harper home was a significant place during the flourishing years of the community, serving as a restaurant, with an after hour spot for residents, both black and white. Robert Moore, sociology professor and Frostburg Planning and Zoning Commission member, says “Yes, there will be a plaque. That was the agreement between the Frostburg Planning Commission and the person who now owns the property.” Lets hope the new owner keeps up his end of the bargain.
Seems like Frostburg State University is finally coming to terms with its past, and the school is trying to show respect and pay homage to a forgotten piece of its history. With a predominantly white community and an increasing black student body, it is essentially important that the minority is given the benefit of knowing that he or she is not alone, that his/her ancestors walked these same grounds, and that their story is important. The dedication ceremony was only the first step. Sources say the school is working on ideas for a plaque to commemorate the overlooked community. In the future Frostburg hopes to continue to do tours through “Brownsville”, update the special collections section in the library, and inform incoming students during summer preview or even family weekend, possibly.
In Lynn Bowman’s words, “This is an evolving story. The more you look, the more you find.” Like much of the past, the story of Brownsville will never fully be told because every bit of information gained will come secondhand. Many people will never be willing to face the past. We can never go back and walk in their footsteps. When people want to ignore the heartache that they have instigated, they tend to deny that it ever even happened. We cannot force anyone to listen to the truths of the past, but that does not mean no one should speak on them.