By Maxine Gross

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Maxine Gross is chair of the board of directors at the Lakeland Community Heritage Project.

Lakeland is nestled between Paint Branch and Indian creeks, just northeast of the main entry to the University of Maryland (UMD), on Route 1. The university has benefited greatly from Lakelanders’ presence on campus — but has the university been a blessing for Lakeland? Much about the community’s contributions to the university has been clear for decades, but the institution’s true impact on the lives of Lakelanders has only recently been brought to light and examined. UMD Researchers and volunteers with the Lakeland Community Heritage Project (LCHP), an organization I helped found, are delving into this complicated relationship.

In 1965, I was a member of the first grade class at Lakeland Elementary School. My classmates and I grew up knowing that many of our parents and others in the community — and members of three or four previous generations of Lakelanders, too — worked at the university, or, as we said back then, “on the hill.” We knew how hard they worked, and we were proud of them. Our parents staffed kitchens and dining halls, drove trash trucks, kept the grounds, cleaned the buildings and moved furniture. More than a third of my first grade classmates’ families relied on income from the university. And even as so many Lakelanders worked at the university, none of them held professional or administrative posts there. Those positions were not open to African Americans.

The university had firm racial barriers in place back then, and Lakelanders, as African Americans, were not fully integrated in the institution’s culture. With so many adults from our neighborhood working on campus, we children were welcomed in the kitchens and storerooms where they spent their days, even as racism shaped the character of those places. Through the years, we kids learned a lot about our parents’ work at the university, but there were things they didn’t share, too. We rarely heard about their limited employment opportunities or low pay, and they shielded us from the demeaning incidents so many of them faced on the job. Having steady employment mattered.

UMD researchers have recently begun to explore and acknowledge the many ways a legion of Lakelanders, along with other African Americans, contributed to the university’s history, and the university now belongs to a consortium, Universities Studying Slavery. According to the consortium’s website, members are “committed to research, acknowledgment, and atonement regarding institutional ties to the slave trade, to enslavement on campus or abroad, and to enduring racism in school history and practice.” As part of their work with the consortium, UMD launched the 1856 Project, an initiative designed to develop a deeper understanding of the university’s relationship to race and discrimination in higher education. 

In the fall of 2022, and as part of the 1856 Project, Dr. Henry “Quint” Gregory’s students, along with university archivists, began to dig into records of Lakelanders employed by the university. (Gregory is director of UMD’s Michelle Smith Collaboratory for Visual Culture.) The students examined long-forgotten accounting ledgers and budgets in the university’s archives; LCHP volunteers have also studied these employment records of Lakelanders — and of their white counterparts, too. The papers list the names of people who worked at the Maryland Agricultural College, (now the University of Maryland), their home addresses, and their positions and pay. Even as so many of our parents worked on campus, we were surprised to find how many Lakelanders actually were employed there; the familiar names of Bill and Charlie Dory, Chesley Mack, of course, but then so many others: Samuel Stewart, Ashby Tolson, Chesley Mack, Alice Nickens, Beatrice Thomas, Ben Briscoe, Richard Walls, John Spriggs, James Gray, Oscar Gray and Victor Randall — and many more, too. A whole community within the institution. Uncovering these names confirmed the stories we Lakeland children grew up with — all those tales of grandparents and great-grandparents who once worked on the hill. 

Additional documents, including census records, confirmed the roles Lakelanders played at UMD. Even as many from our community worked for the railroad and streetcar operations, Lakelanders’ presence on campus was robust. Draft records from both World Wars show many Lakelanders employed there, and most households in Lakeland were connected to the university throughout the 1900s.

By matching census information to old ledgers and documents, LCHP volunteers have been able to identify the race of individuals listed in those records. Putting together these puzzle pieces confirmed another truth: The type of work African Americans did and their pay levels were defined by race. By comparing the pay for the laborers at the university whom I could identify by race, I was able to determine that in the late 1910s, African American laborers earned an average of $361 annually, while whites in similar positions made an average of $588. 

By the 1960s, African Americans working at the university were still in blue-collar jobs. Indeed, the 1963 copy of Polk’s College Park, Hyattsville, Mount Rainier, and Riverdale City Directory showed nearly a third of Lakelanders working for the university, all of them confined to posts like cook, cleaner, chauffeur and gardener. Reading through that book, I see the names of members of my family and parents of my friends.  

What was work life like for these Lakelanders? Some of the university’s yearbooks bring campus culture into sharp focus. They include images that suggest how African Americans working on campus were viewed, images that hint at some of the treatment those employees endured. Some of those images are frightening and many are immensely dehumanizing. The yearbook collection depicts insulting characterizations of individual employees as well as broader racial and ethnic stigmatizations of the group, as a whole. Some images even glorify emblems of racial oppression with depictions of lynching, of a robed Klansman and of white students frolicking in blackface. Some photos show smiling fraternity brothers posed with a Confederate flag. Most of the racist yearbook material published by the university was from the early 1900s, but images like these persisted well into the 1960s. 

Why would generations of Lakelanders continue to work under these conditions? Some of the answers are straightforward: The university was close, and the commute was easy. Because so many Lakelanders worked on the hill, they had the benefits of a built-in support system of family and friends on campus. I wonder how things might have unfolded differently if these Lakelanders had received fair pay and equal employment opportunities. 

As the full history of my community’s complex relationship with the university, and the university’s complicated relationship with Lakeland, is still being written, will we be able to fully understand the implications of those relationships? And I have to now ask, how can past harms be addressed, even as Lakeland continues to face housing pressure, and more, from the university? Will there be a time when we can convincingly say that the University of Maryland has been a blessing to Lakelanders?