New Book Looks at the Living History of African Americans in Shady Side

Author Ann Widdifield and her husband have lived in Shady Side for a dozen years. Before that, they spent some 21 years as owners of a piece of land in the South County hamlet, dreaming of their someday retirement along the banks of the Chesapeake Bay while living and working in Fairfax County.

Widdifield took a more serious interest in her new hometown—and its rich history—once they became permanent residents in 2001. A little bit of information led to a hunger for more. That hunger led Widdifield to writing her newly published book, “Passing through Shady Side.”

The book looks at the history and lives of African American families and residents of Shady Side.

Widdifield said that reading Virginia Fitz’s book about Shady Side, “The Spirit of Shady Side: Peninsula Life 1664-1984”—really piqued her interest in digging a little deeper into a different part of Shady Side history. Fitz, who died in 2005, published that book in the late-1980s. Fitz was one of the founders of the Shady Side Rural Heritage Society in 1985.

Interviews and resources collected by the Heritage Society are part of the collection at the Capt. Avery Museum. Widdifield used some of those interviews and resources in her book.

Widdifield said that she knew that there was a long history of African Americans living in Shady Side, and she wanted to know more about their stories. She wanted to know about the same thing Fitz had talked about in her book—but applied to black families of the peninsula.

By writing the book, Widdifield said, “I was satisfying myself. I’ve always been interested in relationships and that sort of thing.”

In all, eight families were personally interviewed (Holland, Thomson, Scott, Nick, Matthews, Gross, Dennis and Crowner). Widdifield created six separate chapters for family stories, then chronicled wider topics of community and history in the remaining chapters. She examined schools, boarding houses, watermen, businesses, athletics, religion and military.

Widdifield said it took two-and-a-half to three years to conduct the interviews for the book. Some stories she captured just in time. The older generation is beginning to fade away—and take their stories with them.

One of the first people she spoke to, even before the book got underway, was  Chuck Gross. He is no longer alive, but he spoke with Widdifield before he passed. Some of the stories Widdifield was uncovering were things that even he didn’t know about.

Gross told Widdifield, “I was never told that.”

Widdifield said she hopes that the book will also connect Shady Side residents—both black and white—to their own family stories.

She said that the book contained a little bit of genealogy, which she had only dabbled in. She learned how the families were interconnected with each other and with today’s residents of Shady Side.

One of the key ways that Widdifield got serious about getting stories was attending St. Matthews, one of the black churches in Shady Side. She said she approached Rev. Robinson and asked if people at the church would be interested in talking to Widdifield, who is white. Robinson allowed Widdified to make an announcement to the parish.

“Slowly but surely, I began to talk to people,” she said.

She didn’t talk to people at church—rather she went to their homes and recorded the conversations.

One of the first people to sign up for the project was Eliza Dennis, known to everyone in Shady Side as “Doll Baby.” Widdifield said that Doll Baby has a fabulous memory. They talked about everything.

“One of the things I learned is that people were living fun, productive, interesting lives. Shady Side is really a good town—a good community,” she said.

She confirmed that Shady Side is a waterman’s community.

“On the water, everyone is equal. It doesn’t matter if you are black or white.”

Widdifield learned about Shady Side before the integration of the schools. The Rosenwald School and Bates High School in Annapolis were the only educational opportunities for young black boys and girls and later teens. It was taken very seriously—including liberal use of the paddle by the principal.

She also learned about games like rag ball, caddy and dodgeball—popular games among children. The book includes photos from the community.

The book is available in hardcover/paperback on Amazon ($31.99/$15.87) and Barnes and Noble ($31.99/$23.95), and for download on Kindle ($3.99) and Nook ($3.47). It is also being sold at the Capt. Avery Museum in Shady Side.

Widdifield will do a book signing at St. Matthews from 2 to 4 p.m. on March 9. There will be a half-hour program followed by a gathering in the fellowship hall. Representatives of each of the families in the book will also be there to talk and sign books. The Capt. Avery Museum is sponsoring the event.

Speaking of the museum, Widdifield had warm compliments for George and Mavis Daly and their work at the Capt. Avery Museum. George has passed, but Mavis continues on preparing press releases and media outreach for museums activities.

Widdifield said that the museum’s library was a treasure trove of interviews and stories that helped her research.

“The museum has a wonderful library,” she said.

So it is fitting that these stories of African American families will now forever reside at that museum. Royalties from book sales will go to the museum and its work.

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About Mitchelle Stephenson

I've gotta tell Mitchelle! Send your South County news tips, brag on your fab volunteers, talk traffic, police and fire or just say "howdy" to Mitchelle Stephenson, co-founding editor of the South River Source. Mitchelle@SouthRiverSource.com or reach me in person on mobile: 410-353-4706.

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