Issues of Race and Class in Historic Preservation

I recently had a tour of two historic homes of Annapolis, Maryland: the Governor Calvert House and the Maynard-Burgess House.  These two homes are polar opposites when it comes to historic preservation.  One was home to a former wealthy European American governor of Maryland, the other was continuously owned by two African-American families.  One has become a historic hotel next to the Maryland State House (the oldest state capitol used continuously since 1772) while the other has sat vacant since 1990 waiting to become a museum or public garden inviting the public to learn about the rich history of African Americans of Annapolis.

Unless it is set up to generate money, it takes quite a bit of money to preserve a historic home.  In a place like Annapolis, the whole city is set up for preservation through the Historic Annapolis Foundation.  For over fifty years this amazing foundation has preserved nearly 400 buildings partly by raising funds to purchase historic properties.  The Historic Annapolis Foundation petitioned funding from the State of Maryland and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to pay for resurfacing the sidewalks and placing utility lines underground to preserve the historic look of Annapolis at a cost of millions of dollars.  Yet, why is there no money for the preservation of the Maynard-Burgess House?

Rear of Maynard-Burgess House. Source: Benjamin Skolnik

Rear of Maynard-Burgess House. Source: Benjamin Skolnik

One of the goals of Archaeology in Annapolis is to study the historic cultural remains of working-class people that history tends to forget, such as the African-American presence in Annapolis.  The Maynard-Burgess House is a prime example.  In 1831, John Maynard became a free man when he received his certificate of freedom.  He also bought the freedom of his wife (Maria) and her daughter (Phebe Ann Spencer) in 1834, then, in 1847, he purchased the freedom of Maria’s mother (Phebe Spencer).  John and Maria Spencer Maynard bought their house in 1847.  John Maynard is listed in the 1860 census as a waiter and he may have worked at the City Hotel.  In 1900, a relative and former boarder named Willis Burgess bought the home from the Maynards and the Burgesses lived here until the 1980s.

Archaeology in Annapolis excavated a portion of the backyard and found a rich assemblage of household refuse.  These remains reflect the consumption practices of these two African American families as well as issues of race, class, and labor.  Fishing became associated with racist notions of African Americans lazily fishing and consuming their catch.  In the archaeological record, the presence of fish scales declined over time.  Instead of buying or catching fish and removing the scales at home, fish were bought from African American hucksters who sold fresh fish door-to-door and scaled and cleaned it for you.  Finding glass bottles and not finding stoneware or glass preserving jars says something else about consumption practices.  Food preservation was a common practice in Maryland.  African Americans were employed as cooks in hotels and homes throughout Annapolis and they prepared lots of meals with preserved fruits and vegetables.  Whereas property owned by whites contained twice as much evidence of home food preservation, properties of African Americans like the Maynard-Burgess home contained little evidence of this practice and instead had more evidence of professionally canned foods purchased from urban markets.  It can take all day for home preservation of fruits and vegetables, time that African Americans probably did not have.  Also, canned foods bought from national brands meant you got what you paid for.  Paul Mullins explains it like this.  As a black person walking into a white-owned local grocery store, you might get cheated when purchasing products the grocer filled for his costumer but this did not happen when buying products from national brands.  Produce with black spots, worms, or beginning to rot would be sold to African Americans while fresh produce could be brought out especially for white customers.  I was recently watching the TV adaptation of “A Raisin in the Sun” about a working-class African American family in 1950s Chicago and this scene is played out in the movie.

So what does this have to do with historic preservation?  I ask my readers this question: why is the heritage and practices of rich Anglo Americans preserved more frequently than that of working-class African Americans?  Is it race? Is it class?  Why is one privileged over the other?  A majority of Americans are not financially well-off yet most museums and statues in this country honor a small minority of the wealthy.  I say the Maynard-Burgess home is a great way to honor the working-class of this country.  It can become a museum showcasing artifacts recovered archaeologically.  The backyard can be extended and opened with the adjoining properties to create a public park or a community garden which can be rented for weddings or private parties.

Historic Annapolis Foundation is in charge of the property and has promised to turn it into a museum since the 1990s yet it still remains vacate and unchanged.  If millions of dollars can be spent on placing telephone and electric wires underground, why can’t some money be spent building a museum and public green space for the whole community and visitors to enjoy?


Leave a Reply