- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2006

MARDELA SPRINGS, Md. — Amid the gentle hills and rural one-lane roads of northern Wicomico County stand the remains of a community started by free blacks in the early 19th century.

Called San Domingo and now marked mostly by aging graves, the community along the Nanticoke River was once a bustling farming community for 1,000 free blacks before the Civil War.

Never heard of San Domingo? Neither have most people, which is why a group of San Domingo descendants are working to collect oral histories of the community and preserve what little remains of the settlement.

San Domingo, which is between Mardela Springs and Sharptown, never was incorporated as a town, and the origin of the name is a mystery.

Residents grew vegetables and raised hogs, worked on white-owned farms in the area and sent their children to what was called Sharptown Colored School before it closed in 1961.

Leading the charge to document San Domingo’s history is Newell Quinton, 62, who grew up there.

Mr. Quinton has strong memories of the community, especially summer-camp meetings at Zion United Methodist Church and fall gatherings to slaughter hogs. But like many of his generation, he left San Domingo for Baltimore after high school.

When Mr. Quinton returned to San Domingo in 2002 after 40 years away, he was stunned to find few had any recollection of the community.

The school — one of about 5,000 so-called Rosenwald schools that were built for black children by a philanthropist in the early 20th century — was deteriorating. None of the young people he met knew that their ancestors were likely free men decades before emancipation.

“We need to be concerned about the rapid erosion of the community,” said Mr. Quinton, who raises chickens and hogs a short drive from where he grew up. “Culture’s important. You really don’t want to lose it all.”

Tracing the community’s history hasn’t been easy. Except for a few acres of headstones near the church, not much remains of San Domingo’s 19th-century era.

The first mention that Mr. Quinton has found of San Domingo is in U.S. census records from 1820, when a free slave named James Brown purchased land near the Delaware line.

The origin of the name San Domingo may be lost to history.

“We really don’t know,” Mr. Quinton said. “There’s been so much time passed and so many people deceased who did know. It’s just gone.”

Instead, Mr. Quinton and his neighbors are focused on preserving the memory of the community as it was in the early 20th century.

Sylvia Goslee, 70, attended Sharptown Colored School and remembers picking cucumbers, string beans and tomatoes as a child on a nearby farm.

“People have mostly moved out, and then when the new ones come in, they don’t have any pride in keeping our community,” Miss Goslee said.

Mr. Quinton drove out to the old school to show the danger of San Domingo’s being lost entirely. He has to describe the walkway and fence around the two-story, four-room school that he attended because they’re gone.

He is seeking a grant from the Maryland Historical Trust to start restoration on Sharptown Colored School.

The Rosenwald schools — built in 15 states by Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck and Co. — were listed as endangered historical sites in 2002 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Of the original 5,000 schools, only a small percentage remain, said Tracy Hayes, a program assistant for the trust’s Rosenwald Initiative in Charleston, S.C.

Maryland once may have had 149 Rosenwald schools, but no one knows how many still are standing, she said. The problem is that so many were in rural areas and, like the Sharptown Colored School, they were abandoned after integration.

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