“Father Abraham has spoken, and the message has been sent,
The prison doors have opened, and out the prisoners went
To join the sable army of African descent
As we go marching on.”
-from The Valiant Soldiers.
With a poignant “libation” reading from the Sojourner Truth poem "The Valiant Soldiers," the Benjamin Banneker Museum opened a program last Saturday afternoon honoring African American Firsts in Baltimore County
Offered as a celebration of the life of Remus Adams, the first African American entrepreneur in Baltimore County, the program also touched upon African Americans who served in the Civil War, which is the theme of Black History Month this year.
Appropriately, the program was preceded by the Presentation of the Colors by a group of African American Junior ROTC Marines, followed by the national anthem.
After the invocation, and a beautifully sung version of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" by members of the Milford Mill Academy Chorale, historian and master of ceremonies Dr. Brian Morrison introduced an ensemble of young actors, also from Milford Mill.
The students outlined the story of Adams in a one-act play. Later in the program, local historian and author Louis Diggs filled in more of the story of this remarkable man.
In the years before the Civil War, Adams was a free black man living with his family on present day Bloomington Road in Catonsville. His father owned a blacksmith shop on Frederick road, where Adams learned the trade. From a young age he believed that he and other African Americans could be more than what they allowed to be under law.
Maryland was a slave state, and even free blacks were not allowed to vote, testify in court, or serve the country as soldiers. Slaves were not allowed to be taught to read or write, nor could they gather in groups. In the 1850s, a free black man emigrating to Maryland had ten days to get a job, or he could be impressed into slavery.
After his father’s death, Adams and his brothers took over the shop. His brothers eventually moved on, leaving him to run the store. There he insisted that the shop be used to train other free blacks in the blacksmith trade. Blacksmithing, the shaping of iron into useful and needed implements, was an essential occupation in the 1800s. Just about every home required the services of a blacksmith for tools, hinges, kitchen implements and of course, horseshoes and wagon parts.
During the Civil War, Baltimore became a magnet for free blacks and ex-slaves. The growing Fells Point waterfront provided many jobs. In the counties, with many men off to fight, experienced farmhands were in short supply, offering opportunity to the ex-slave.
Maryland agriculture had also changed with the war, and many slaveholders were selling off slaves or freeing them in order to reduce their costs. Some slaveholders freed their all slaves in their wills, some believe as a way to ease their conscience.
President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863, freed all slaves held in states in rebellion. Following the proclamation, Lincoln gave the go ahead for recruitment of black men into segregated Union regiments, the United States Colored Troops. Nearly 175,000 black men enlisted, and swelled the ranks of the Union Army.
Although a majority of these units were forced to serve in support positions, many were in combat and fought courageously. Some, including native Baltimorean Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood, served so valiantly they were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Black soldiers returning home after the war came back with a renewed sense of purpose. They also came home with an understanding that education would be the keystone for achieving equality.
Adams understood this well. In 1867 he partnered with the Rector of St. Timothy’s Hall, an Episcopal school for boys, to open a school for "‘colored children."
Since it wouldn’t be until 1872 that Maryland would allow for a portion of the school tax collected to be distributed to so-called "colored facilities," schools such as the one Adams envisioned had to be privately financed. Adams must have been a fairly successful man at this point. The 1870 census showed him to have assets of $15,000.
According to Louis Diggs, Adams financed the new school, and paid the teachers out of his own pocket.
The school was built on land purchased in 1867 by the Freedmen’s Bureau (officially the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands), a government agency set up after the war to assist ex-slaves.
It was located at the corner of Edmondson Avenue and Winters Lane in what is now the Winter’s Lane Historic District, as listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Diggs said he also believed the Adams family attended the Grace AME Church on Winter’s Lane, one of the oldest African American churches in the area. The church may have also contributed to the schools funding.
The blacksmith shop was razed many years ago to make room for Catonsville Elementary School, which still stands in its place.
Adams was also part of a business venture called the Greenwood Electric Park, an amusement park for the African American community. The park was considered to be one of the prime attractions that drew many African Americans to emigrate to the Catonsville area in the 1900s.
Following the play, Sergeants Stokes and Pender of the Baltimore Chapter of Buffalo Soldiers briefly spoke about the contributions of African Americans in the Civil War, and the many wars following in which African American served with distinction. They spoke of the discrimination faced by many. After the Civil War, for example, government regulation forbade a black man in uniform to serve east of the Mississippi.
While much information on Adams is sparse, one interesting fact Diggs brought forth involved a small advertisement from the Maryland Journal of August 1773.
The notice stated that the advertiser “rides post from Baltimore to Frederick” and then onto Cumberland. This was an ad for the colonial version of FedEx delivery.
The entrepreneur providing this service was William Adams, a free African American man, and the grandfather of blacksmith Remus Adam.