Richard Pry, one of the picnic's organizers, leads the picnic attendees in remembering those lost in the Coatsville Community over the past year. Photo by Jody Brumage
This past Sunday, August 9, 2015, I had the honor of addressing the Coatsville Picnic, an annual gathering of residents and families from Burkittsville's historic African American community. This tradition has a history of its own, bringing together a diverse community to share in conversation and reflect on the significant and fascinating history of Coatsville. This past weekend marked the event's 23rd year.
Coatsville grew organically as a community of freed and enslaved African Americans who, early on, were mostly associated with the Needwood Estate, the plantation of Maryland's second Governor Thomas Sim Lee. The community established by these foremothers and forefathers has continued right down to the present day. Those many generations of citizens have included many heroes who overcame tremendous odds in a segregated and discriminatory world to make real differences in the lives of their neighbors.
SMHS Historian and Curator Jody Brumage addresses the Coatsville Picnic. Photo by Carl Butler
In my short talk with the group, I highlighted a few of these significant figures and their impacts on our shared history. We began in the 19th century with Francis Thomas, Maryland's 26th Governor from Petersville who worked with the convention to produce the 1864 Constitution of Maryland which, upon ratification abolished the institution of slavery in the state. Around the time that Governor Thomas made this achievement, George Albert Whalen was born in Point of Rocks. Graduating from Storer Normal School in Harpers Ferry, Whalen went on to teach in area Black schools for over 40 years and gained the support of local industrialist Outerbridge Horsey to build a schoolhouse for Coatsville in the 1890s. Another family, the Bruners, included several generations of teachers and school administrators who worked to insure that African American children in Frederick County received a solid education despite a "separate-but-equal" approach to public education. We also discussed the movement in 2002 which successfully gained state recognition of the community of Coatsville and the placement of name signs along MD-17 at each end of the village.
The most important part of the afternoon for me was getting to speak to the many different people at the picnic and record their stories and memories. This is an effort that can never receive enough attention. For as much of our history is written down in documents or captured in photographs, much more is committed to memory. We owe it to our future citizens of Coatsville, Burkittsville, and all of our communities to take the time and record the history our elders have to share.
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Jody Brumage is the Historian and Curator of South Mountain Heritage Society. Jody works with our exhibits, the interpretation of our historic site, and our programming. This blog features some of our events and news from the society as well as unique discoveries and research we come across while working in the museum.