CHANGING LANDSCAPES IN SOUTHERN MARYLAND is a collection of 49 oral histories published by the Southern Maryland Regional Library Association. The interviews stem from 1981 to the present and are divided into four sections: Water, Land, Community, and Military. Many of the interviews with done in partnership with StoryCorps, the NPR/American Folklife project dedicated to preserving the everyday histories of the American people.
Local oral histories make fascinating reading, no matter what locality they come from. In Southern Maryland, the long traditions of watermen and tobacco farming intertwine with the hopes and aspirations of its people. And sometimes they result in some pretty good stories.
Just a few examples:
- Clarence Bisco, born in 1890, talks of the oyster wars, gun battles between watermen and the police, then goes on to speak of one boat captain: "I just heard he was bad on his crew he had when he was a young man. He'd knock some of 'em overboard and drown 'em when pay-day come...But I never believed they killed 'em. They accused all them drudgers of killing their men."
- Margaret Brown and Carrie Johnson shucked oysters and clams for a living; they spoke of singing spiritals while they worked: "When we first started singing down there we started to sing hymns for fun. You know it was all for fun. But you get bored standing up there and you do something to pass away the time. After a while once we began singing one night we looked around and saw the walls were just lined with people. They had come in to listen. They wanted to come in all the time after that to here us sing. And I mean all the time. Yeah, there were a lot of people that would come in just to listen. They liked to listen."
- Uriah Yoder, a 77 year old Amish farmer: "Our food was mostly what we had raised. Black iron pot of cornmeal mush was cooking on the stove every evening. We had sliced fried potatoes with sliced raw onions on the potatoes then cover it with cornmeal mush. We eat it hot in a bowl with some butter on top and some milk. That's what we eat for supper. Now some people say dinner but it's supper to us. They don't have dinner anymore. They have lunch." And, "I was married in 1956, November 12, to my wife Mary, and four months near 50 years she passed away in July 29, 2006, so I remarried again in December 2006. I was 75 and my wife, who I married, was a schoolteacher for 20 years and she had never been married. So she was 45, we were 32 years difference."
- Wilson H. Parran, born in 1950, talked up growing up on a sharecropping farm: "There wasn't much interaction between the owner of the farm and the sharecropper. The only interaction you had was when the owner of the farm picked up my dad when tobacco was sold at the tobacco market and they would go up together. She was white lady, Ms. Lyons, she would be driving in the front and he would sit in the back. This was the '50s, and you know, you'd not had a black man sitting up front with a white woman."
- Lemon Moses, 89, spoke of his boyhood in Pittsburg: "...She found out that I was a friend of Gene Kelly's. Old Gene Kelly we're all raised up together, tap dance together, and that's how Gene learned to dance so well, like the black guys, because he hung out with us. After he left his mother's dancing school, he'd come down the hill and hang out with all the black dancers, and we exchanged dancing steps. Only for, Gene Kelly made it to Hollywood, and we still hung out on the corner tap-dancing in Pittsburg. But I did spend many years in Vaudeville."
- Mervin Savoy, a Native American: "I also have had children say, did I know Pocahontas? 'No.' 'But you said you were Indian?' 'Yes.' 'Well, Pocahontas was an Indian.' 'Yeah, I age well, but I didn't age that well.'"
Fascinating. Many of those interviewed rose from poverty to college degrees. Some spoke of ancestors who remembered when the slaves were freed, and of ancestors who heard the hunt for John Wilkes Booth through Zacariah Swamp. There were stories of the founding of an electrical cooperative, of struggles to grow crops other than tobacco, of watermen trying to survive when the Chesapeake froze, of going to the movies, of romancing a spouse, of rowing to the Presidential yacht to sell seafood, of trying to ease relations between a local population and the military, of a time when community policing was the norm, and so much more.
This book, unfortunately is not for sale, but is distributed through local libraries and school systems. No guarantees, but contacting the Southern Maryland Regional Library Association (PO Box 459, Charlotte Hall, Maryland 20622) may snag you a copy.
Better yet, contact your local library to see if there are oral histories available in your area. It's a great way to begin to understand your community and the fascinating tapestry it holds.