As we near the end of Black History Month, it’s imperative to recognize that Black history is not merely a chapter in the annals of Maryland’s story; it is the very fabric of the state’s rich tapestry. From the bustling shipyards of Baltimore to the farmlands and waterways of Southern Maryland, the contributions and struggles of Black Americans are woven into every corner of Maryland’s history.

This fact is nowhere more evident than in our state’s two Maryland-centered national heritage areas in Baltimore and Southern Maryland. The newest of these two, the Southern Maryland National Heritage Area, was designated by Congress just one year ago. Since then, it’s already helped shed light on the vital stories of both triumph and pain that have shaped the Black experience in our state.

Take, for example, the story of Mathias De Sousa. De Sousa arrived in Southern Maryland in 1634 as an indentured servant and, seven years later, served as a representative in the Maryland Assembly. He’s now recognized as the first person of African descent to vote in an American legislature.

Or reflect on the life of Harriet Elizabeth Brown, a pioneering educator and the first Black teacher in Calvert County, who, in the 1930s, fought for equal pay regardless of race. These and other remarkable stories are part of the timeline of the region and are being explored through educational materials and upcoming programming in the new Southern Maryland National Heritage Area.

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Or consider the Baltimore National Heritage Area and the stories it tells about the long struggle for freedom and justice. Writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass spent his formative years working in the shipyards of Fells Point, where he taught himself to read and write before escaping to freedom in 1838. Baltimore church leaders, including Rev. Dr. Garnett Russell Waller of Trinity Baptist Church and Dr. Harvey Johnson of Union Baptist Church, were active in the Niagara Movement, an organization founded in 1905 to promote racial equality. Members of this group helped form the NAACP.

These stories, and so many more, are Maryland history. They are integral to understanding our state’s identity, and our national heritage areas help keep them alive. And yet, even as we recognize and celebrate the inspiring stories and achievements of Black Marylanders, we have a duty to grapple with our state’s history of injustice and oppression toward them.

Forty years after De Sousa’s term, the legislature passed a law that allowed for the enslavement of people of African descent and their families. It was in Southern Maryland where Josiah Henson was born and enslaved, an experience of brutality he wrote about in his later autobiography, which became the basis for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The tobacco plantations in Southern Maryland that fueled the region’s economic growth relied on the labor of enslaved people. And it was in Baltimore’s ports that the trade of enslaved people flourished: The 1790 census listed twice as many enslaved people in the city as free persons of color.

This, too, is Maryland history. Maryland’s national heritage areas serve as living testaments to these realities and ensure these stories are preserved. Marylanders today can visit Historic Sotterley, an early 18th-century tidewater plantation overlooking the Patuxent River, to learn about the lives of the people who once lived and labored there and to learn how descendants of those once enslaved on this site are now directing the narrative. They can trace Baltimore’s Civil Rights history on the Pennsylvania Avenue Heritage Trail in West Baltimore, recounting the lives of such well-known figures as Thurgood Marshall as well as those who are lesser-known.

By preserving these sites and sharing their stories, Maryland’s national heritage areas provide opportunities for education, reflectionand dialogue. They challenge us to confront the complexities of our shared history and to recognize the enduring legacies of slavery, segregation and systemic racism that continue to shape our society today.

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As we honor Black History Month, let us reaffirm our commitment to preserving and amplifying the voices and experiences of Black Marylanders. Let us acknowledge that Black history is not confined to a single month or a separate chapter in our textbooks but is critical to our state’s — and nation’s — past, present and future. And let us embrace the vital role that Maryland’s national heritage areas play in preserving this history for generations to come.

Lucille Walker is executive director of the Southern Maryland National Heritage Area. Shauntee Daniels is executive director of the Baltimore National Heritage Area.

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