Browns Woods Park seems too small a rectangle of patchy grass for the symbolism it holds.

It is a touchstone of the Black community across the Severn River from Annapolis that once stretched north to Arnold.

When Anne Arundel County placed wooden posts and railings around this small athletic field in November, it had the best intentions. People had held a car show on the field where a youth soccer league practices.

Those people, though, were members of the Annual Father’s Day Foundation, a group of young Black men working to save what is left of Browns Woods and other communities. No one reached out to them or surrounding families with roots dating back to before the Civil War about the guardrails, apparently unaware that they existed.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“Well, they called it blind spots,” said Devon Edwards Sr., organizer of the foundation. “That’s what they called it. They said, ‘We have a few blind spots.’ My argument was that blind people, they don’t have a choice. They can’t see. You can’t really call it a blind spot because you didn’t know a community was there. I think it was just kind of ignored.”

I’ve lived in Annapolis for 35 years, and I knew very little about Browns Woods and the neighborhoods around it. Then I heard Will Rowel, a top aide to Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley, introduce himself by naming one of those places.

“I’m from Mulberry Hill,” he said.

I had a blind spot. So, I asked for help to clear it. Rowel sent me to his brother and his father, Randy Kenyatta and Randolph Rowel.

They and others explained what the county missed when it installed those guardrails. Communities such as Browns Woods, Mulberry Hill and Skidmore have been eroding away for decades under the tide of gentrification and a culture that can value the story of white Annapolis above the story of Black Annapolis.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“What makes gentrification? It’s not the fact that old buildings get old and need to be changed. It’s excluding the people who are there from having the opportunity to reap the benefits of change,” said Randolph Rowel, a retired department chair at Morgan State University.

Browns Woods Park, sometimes called Brownswoods Park or Brown Woods Field, is a tiny community part in what was once an extensive Black community.
Browns Woods Park — sometimes called Brownswoods Park or Brown Woods Field — is a tiny community park in what was once an extensive Black community. (Rick Hutzell)

The roots of these communities are not well-mapped. They’re outside the city limits. There’s a reference here and there to Black families emancipated and granted land before Maryland abolished slavery, but it’s hard to document this remarkable story that connects families with names like Rowel, Green, Johnson, Stansbury and Hunt.

“There is a saying, live on the other side of the river from Annapolis, across the Severn River, and you are a relative,” said Robert Hunt, who now lives in Upper Marlboro. “Everyone who is of color who lives on the other side of the river is tied by birth, by blood or by marriage.”

Hunt confirmed his own family lore, of an ancestor who was a freeman bonded to a tobacco plantation owner. Land records document the transfer of 40 acres, he said, the start of sharecropping that dominated life in the area for generations. But that legacy broke in 2006 when 186 descendants of the original Hunt fought over the future of the land. The ensuing lawsuit ended in a court-ordered sale.

“All that land is gone over the last 20 years or so,” Hunt said. “The transfer issue is ceded to the courts when the family cannot agree.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

This network of families was largely left alone until the 1940s and ’50s when Maryland built Route 50, cutting through Skidmore and stranding their church, Asbury Broadneck United Methodist Church, on the north side of the highway. After the county added roads and public water starting in the 1960s, decades of land speculation began that has resulted in white families in their own neighborhoods behind fences.

It’s not clear exactly what is left.

“It’s not the same community that I grew up in,” said Edwards, an Army veteran whose family sold its land. “It ain’t much Browns Woods now. It’s white Woods.”

Many of the new residents have little understanding of the history around them, identifying their homes with other names for the area: Annapolis, Broadneck or St. Margaret’s. The last one is a link to the area’s beginnings, St. Margaret’s Church.

Founded in 1692, it was funded by plantation tobacco harvests. For most of its history, the church baptized, married and buried the Black laborers who brought that crop in but refused to let them worship inside. It’s a story that church members want to rectify.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“In the middle of that is a relationship that has not been good with the people who were chattel slaves in the neighborhood,” said Dan Tootle, co-chair of a panel set up to reassess the church’s history.

The church set up a Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Task Force following 2019 guidance from the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. The diocese created a $1 million reparation fund for grants aimed at repairing some of the damage done by the church.

Randy Kenyatta Rowel, a director of the foundation and chair of the Annapolis Environmental Commission, said even that effort is a barrier for communities so weakened by changes that they don’t have resources for a competitive grant process. He thinks reparations should include bringing in environmentally friendly infrastructure that could be a model for the Chesapeake Bay, but they could be more than that.

“We want our land returned,” Rowel said. “We want access returned to our waterfront properties. We want gentrification reversed. We also want our input solicited for anything and everything that goes on in our communities.”

Rick Hutzell: Like everything about Jimmy Carter, his relationship with the Naval Academy is complicated

Others said it’s more practical to document the changes and preserve the past in the same way that downtown Annapolis preserves the story of its colonial origins.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The Annual Father’s Day Foundation applied for a church grant to start an oral history project, as well as for Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network money through the National Park Service to install storyboards. Whitehall, the historic landmark where some of the families may have been enslaved, is part of the proposed Chesapeake National Recreation Area.

There are stories to celebrate.

The Rowels and Greens descend from the Rev. Samuel Green, an Underground Railroad conductor, Harriet Tubman’s cousin and the founder of Morgan State University.

There is Al Green, the first Black golf club pro in Maryland. He was one of the Black caddies barred from play at the whites-only Naval Academy Golf Course next door. He played three times in the U.S. Open.

Browns Woods School was a Rosenwald school, built in the 1920s for Black children in the era of segregated education. Today, it is a home for people recovering from addictions.

There are legends that the community shares, about caddies practicing at Browns Woods Park, Negro League baseball glory or family picnics that filled the park on summer weekends.

And the foundation has plans for the future, including seminars on wealth-building and mental health. The first family ball is set for April.

The guardrail was a symbol of all the slights that have come before, a catalyst.

“There is a local community out there that has a much larger concern than just the guardrail,” said Jessica Leys, the county’s recreation and parks director. “The guardrail was the thing that validated their concerns.”

Leys, who came to the county in 2019, didn’t know any of this history. When the Annual Father’s Day Foundation protested, she quickly agreed to revisit the guardrail.

“The meshing of the old with the new,” Leys said, “communication is how that happens and how that works.”

At a Feb. 2 meeting, she committed to modifying the guardrails, adding a sign identifying the park and partnering on future picnics. But she said she can’t provide water access or meet other requests. Randy Kenyatta Rowel said the foundation is preparing a detailed response.

“We’re in the process of redesigning the entire Browns field with rec and parks,” he said. “But this only came about because they put these in barriers.”

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

More From The Banner