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Preserving what remains of San Domingo

A group of  descendants of a community started by free black Americans in the early 19th century is working to collect oral histories of the community and preserve what little remains of the settlement.
Newell Quinton
Newell Quinton grew up in San Domingo, the community between Mardela Springs and Sharptown, Md. He walks on the grounds of Zion United Methodist Church in Mardela Springs, in this June 19 photo. Quinton and a group of San Domingo residents are collecting oral histories of the community to preserve what remains of the free settlement. Matthew S. Gunby / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Amid the gentle hills and rural one-lane roads of northern Wicomico County stand the remains of a community started by free blacks in the early 19th century.

Called San Domingo and now marked mostly by aging graves, the community along the Nanticoke River was once a bustling farming community for 1,000 free black people before the Civil War.

Never heard of San Domingo? Neither have most people, which is why a group of San Domingo descendants is working to collect oral histories of the community and preserve what little remains of the settlement.

San Domingo sits between Mardela Springs and Sharptown, about 50 miles southeast of Annapolis near the Maryland-Delaware border but it was never incorporated as a town. The origin of the name is a mystery. Residents grew vegetables and raised hogs, worked on white-owned farms in the area and sent their children to what was called Sharptown Colored School before it closed in 1961.

Leading the charge to document San Domingo’s history is Newell Quinton, 62, who grew up there. Quinton has strong memories of the community, especially summer camp meetings at Zion Methodist Church and fall gatherings to slaughter hogs. But like many of his generation, he left San Domingo for Baltimore after high school.

When Quinton returned in 2002 after 40 years away, he was stunned to find few had any recollection of the community. The school — one of about 5,000 schools called Rosenwald schools that were built for black children by a philanthropist in the early 20th century — was falling apart. And none of the young people he met knew their ancestors were likely free men decades before emancipation.

History hard to trace
“We need to be concerned about the rapid erosion of the community,” said Quinton, who raises chickens and hogs a short drive from where he grew up. “Culture’s important. You really don’t want to lose it all.”

** APN ADVANCE FOR Sunday, July 23 **Newell Quinton , 62, who grew up in the community between Mardela Springs and Sharptown, which he and his neighbors called San Domingo, speaks at a lecture Monday, June 19, 2006 in Salisbury, Md. Amid the gentle hills and rural one-lane roads of northern Wicomico County stand the remains of a community started by free blacks in the early 19th century, called San Domingo. Led by Quinton, a group of San Domingo residents are working to collect oral histories of the community and preserve what little remains of the free settlement. (AP Photo/Matthew S. Gunby)Matthew S. Gunby / AP

Tracing the community’s history hasn’t been easy. Except for a few acres of headstones near the church, not much remains from San Domingo’s 19th-century era. The first mention Quinton has found of San Domingo is U.S. Census records from 1820, when a free slave named James Brown purchased land near the Delaware line.

As to where the name San Domingo came from, the question may be lost to history. Quinton hasn’t been able to discover where Brown came from, and no one he’s interviewed yet has an explanation.

Some talk of older relatives who said their families had roots in Haiti or the Caribbean, and some county maps list a “Santo Domingo” where the community stands, but Quinton says the early history of the settlement will remain hazy.

“We really don’t know,” Quinton said. “There’s been so much time passed and so many people deceased who did know. It’s just gone.”

Preserving the early 20th century
Instead, Quinton and his neighbors are focused on preserving the memory of the community as it was in the early 20th century, before integration and more mobility for black residents changed the isolated hamlet.

Sylvia Goslee, 70, attended Sharptown Colored School and remembers picking cucumbers, string beans and tomatoes as a child on a farm nearby. Most residents today, she said, don’t know anything about San Domingo.

“People have mostly moved out, and then when the new ones come in, they don’t have any pride in keeping our community,” Goslee said.

Quinton drove out to the old school to show the danger of San Domingo being lost entirely. He has to describe the walkway and fence around the two-story, four-room school he attended because they’re gone.

A rusty pole in the back shows where a merry-go-round used to be. The baseball field he remembers is overgrown. The building’s white clapboard has been covered in aluminum siding painted white, and inside, 1960s-era wood paneling was put up over most of the windows.

School may be renovated
The old school still isn’t heated or cooled, and no original furniture remains. Quinton is seeking a grant from the Maryland Historical Trust to start restoration on the Sharptown school.

The Rosenwald schools, built in 15 states by Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck and Co., were listed as endangered historical sites in 2002 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Of the original 5,000 schools, only a small percentage remain, said Tracy Hayes, a program assistant for the trust’s Rosenwald Initiative in Charleston, S.C. Maryland may once have had 149 Rosenwald schools, but no one knows how many are still standing, she said. The problem is that so many were in rural areas and, like the Sharptown Colored School, they were abandoned after integration.

“Because of the rural nature, a lot of these buildings are standing unknown and abandoned in rural areas, and people today don’t know what they’re looking at when they see them,” Hayes said.

Civic centers’ of black life
Craig Barton, an architect and professor at the University of Virginia, said Rosenwald schools are “highly charged emotional sites on the African-American landscape.”

“In most cases they were the civic centers of African-American communities,” Barton said. “Many of the parents were folks who hadn’t had the opportunity to be educated. ... They were the places where parents invested their aspirations in the success of their children.”

In San Domingo, Quinton and his siblings hope to save the school they attended and fill it with oral histories of the community along the Nanticoke.

“Some of the kids you talk to today say, ‘Oh, that’s ancient history,”’ said Quinton’s sister, 63-year-old Alma Hackett. “When you try to tell them how hard it was, they say ‘Here we go again, more ancient history.’ But in order to build on your future you have to know your history. We’ve got to keep it alive.”