By Christina Armeni
Just a few blocks from the University of Maryland (UMD) campus is Lakeland, which was an established African American community for most of the 20th century. And now, with the work of the Lakeland Community Heritage Project, members of the community are preserving and sharing their stories.
On Nov. 19, more than 150 people participated in “The Lakeland Spirit: Through Digital Footprints,” a virtual event honoring the community. The Lakeland Community Heritage Project partnered with the university’s Department of American Studies and the Maryland Institute for Technology in Humanities to put on the event.
Lakeland residents used historical documents and family records to tell their stories. Lakeland was established in 1890 and remained a largely African American community until urban renewal displaced Lakeland families in the 1970s.
“I really would like for the heritage of Lakeland to be visible from the time someone enters until the time they leave,” panelist Violetta Sharps Jones said. She has researched the genealogy of Lakeland families and studied the history of African Americans in the area. After documenting her own family tree, she began helping local families discover their histories by examining archives and cemetery records. As a fifth-generation Lakelander, returning to the area has been emotional for Sharps Jones. She recalled a time not long ago when she and her sisters walked around Lake Artemesia and were saddened to see that so little remained from their childhood.
“It’s a shadow of its former self,” said Maxine Gross, who is president of the Lakeland Community Heritage Project. She has lived in Lakeland for most of her life. When she was growing up, the community was tightknit and family-oriented. She grew up in a house her parents built on land given to them by her grandparents, who lived across the street. Her great-grandparents lived a few houses away. Gross earned her bachelor’s degree in theatre from the University of Maryland and her master’s in human resources from Bowie State University.
Reverend Joanne Braxton, who was a panelist for the virtual event, is the great-granddaughter of one of Lakeland’s founders. “I’m really from Lakeland,” said Braxton, who is a professor at the College of William and Mary. Braxton shared a photo of her brother’s coffin being carried at his funeral in 1980. “We said he died of a broken heart, having given his last full measure of love to trying to save the Lakeland school and defend his community.” The wreath on his coffin was shaped like a broken heart. Braxton’s brother Billy, who died at 43, worked diligently to help his community. “No one who was present at that funeral that day failed to understand the connection between urban renewal and Billy’s broken heart,” Braxton said.
No matter where life has taken Gross, she has always found her way back to Lakeland. “Few people who live in Lakeland [now] know about the past of Lakeland. They don’t even really know it was an African American community.” Gross and other Lakelanders launched the Lakeland Community Heritage Project more than a decade ago to raise local awareness. The nonprofit preserves the history of the African Americans who were and still are a part of the Lakeland community. “We thought that the community story was an important one, not just for the people who lived in it, but also as an example or a way to understand life for African Americans in the region and also nationally,” Gross said.
The Maryland Institute for Technology in Humanities and the Lakeland Community Heritage Project have been working to create a virtual public archive to preserve the history of Lakeland and the families who lived there. “We need to have more tangible evidence that these people came, and they stayed, and they created this wonderful community,” Sharps Jones said. “We cannot let them be forgotten.”