Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Collection explores Frederick’s vibrant past

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courtesy of Historical Society of Frederick County
Frederick’s William O. Lee Jr. spent a lifetime collecting items about the region’s black community, including a photo of the 1920s-era Bartonsville Band (above).
Like an unearthed time capsule, a rare and unique look into Frederick’s black history is now available to the public.

The priceless photographs, documents and memorabilia are available, thanks to years of collecting by native son William O. Lee Jr.

Throughout his 75 years, Lee, an educator and city leader who died in 2004, gathered items chronicling life in Frederick, especially of its black residents. For the first time, Lee’s collection is available in its entirety for public viewing — The Historical Society of Frederick County announced this week it has completed the year-long task of cataloguing and preserving Lee’s archives.

‘‘[The collection] shows a history of this place, but a different aspect,” said Rose Chaney, a lifetime friend of the Lee family. ‘‘African-American history is not always explained ... but it is part of the history of this town. African-Americans have a great history in Frederick which is not always recognized.”

In 2003, the public got a first look at some of Lee’s treasures in ‘‘Bill Lee Remembers,” a book rich in visual images and the statesman’s thoughts of black life in Frederick. Shortly after release of the book, Lee died of lung cancer.

Before her death in 2006, Lee’s widow, Cynthia, and the couple’s two children, Vivian and Hugh, reached an agreement with the Historical Society to preserve the nearly 1,000 items in the collection for future generations.

Historical Society Executive Director Mark Hudson was an admirer of Lee and once got a guided tour of West All Saints Street from the former city alderman. Lee called the street ‘‘the hub of black history” in segregated Frederick, given its wealth of businesses, social organizations and churches frequented by black residents.

‘‘I get a lump in my throat when I recall walking with Bill and he’d narrate what it was like on a Saturday night and how vital it was just came alive,” Hudson said. ‘‘...There was a passion and a glee he had in describing it, which is hard to explain, but I got it.”

Lee’s passion is evident in the collection, from pictures and details of the local Elks and Masons in the 1950s and 1960s to an entire scrapbook about the Lincoln School, an all-black school that was Lee’s alma mater and where he taught from 1954 to 1970.

Mary V. Harris is a member of the county’s African-American Resources-Cultural and Heritage (AARCH) committee, started by Lee to preserve local black history. Harris graduated from Lincoln School in 1957, when Lee was a teacher there. He was a role model for her and other students, she said, as well as the subject of many a schoolgirl’s crush, including her own.

Harris said looking at the collection gives her ‘‘goosepimples” as she relives her youth. She also notes its importance in framing the discussion on segregation and black Frederick.

‘‘[The collection] shows the resiliency of black people who got the short end of the stick, but still achieved things,” Harris said. ‘‘... I also look at it with a sense of pride, to look at it as history no longer in a vacuum.”

Both Harris and Hudson noted Lee’s belief that Frederick’s black community lost some connections as an unforeseen outcome of the end of segregation. It is therefore so important, they said, to have reminders of what once was a part of history.

Hudson said Lee’s items are actually two collections, the first documenting black life in Frederick County and the second documenting Bill Lee himself.

‘‘In a way, this is Frederick’s African-American history through Bill Lee’s eyes,” Hudson said.

‘He was my hero’

To Earlene Thornton, an AARCH member who also served as editor of Lee’s 2003 book, Lee was ‘‘Mr. Information.”

During her 15 years as editor of the County Globe, a black newspaper started by Lee and George Dredden, Lee was a constant source of information for a number of stories.

‘‘Bill was secure and confident ... and a lot in the community gave him love and support,” said Thornton, the first black woman to sit on the county’s Board of Education. ‘‘... He could be surrounded by negatives and bring out the positives.”

Thornton, Chaney and Harris all spent many Tuesday mornings with Cynthia Lee, Hudson and the Society’s head of museum collections, Heidi Campbell-Shoaf, in 2006, preparing a six-panel display of some of Bill Lee’s items for AARCH. The collection, which travels to schools, government offices and other places as an educational tool, noted Lee’s role as a ‘‘griot.”

In some West African cultures, a griot is a storyteller who preserves the heritage and tradition of the community. That is how Chaney sees Lee’s legacy in Frederick city and county.

‘‘He was my hero,” said Chaney, who attended Lincoln until it became South Frederick Elementary School in 1962. ‘‘... He shared [the collection] with anyone who needed information. He saw the need to preserve that history. It is a part of history that needs to be shared and needs to be used.”

Hudson said having the collection has allowed the Historical Society to continue Lee’s quest to share information about black Frederick.

‘‘One of the challenges we always had was access to the African-American experience because there was a lack of information,” he said. ‘‘[Mr. Lee’s collection] opens new opportunities for us ... it allows us to tell the full story of local history.”