Retired Baltimore Lawyer Works To Preserve Md. Community Founded By Former Slaves
By DANNY JACOBS
The Daily Record
DICKERSON, Md. (AP) — Otho M. Thompson was home again last week, standing in the damp grass behind the one-room schoolhouse and in front of the sagging lodge hall supported by wooden scaffolding.
It’s now called the Warren Historic Site, hard by Whites Ferry Road in far western Montgomery County. But 60 years ago, when Thompson was a child, the school, hall and nearby church were the center of Martinsburg, a community founded by free blacks and former slaves after the Civil War.
“You knew everyone in the community,” he said. “It was just like one big family.”
Thompson, a former Baltimore city solicitor and retired partner at Venable LLP, has represented the Warren Historic Site Committee Inc. pro bono since the nonprofit was founded 16 years ago.
The committee’s goal is to refurbish and preserve the only location in Maryland where the church, school and social hall — the three buildings that formed the heart of rural, African-American life at the turn of the 20th century — are still standing at their original locations.
The group has raised $100,000 in private funds, and with the first $10,000, it purchased the site from the United Methodist Church in 2001.
“We felt it was too precious to lose,” said Elsie Thomas, president of the committee and a fifth-generation community member.
The first Warren Methodist Episcopal Church was built in 1866 next to a cemetery a mile or so up the road from the Warren site. A decade later, oxen and rollers moved the church to its new home, where the current structure was built in 1903.
The tin roof is a replica of the original, and the mural of a “Gospel Train” was painted at the back of the altar by a church member more than 60 years ago.
The wooden pews are from the original building, and Thomas, 73, can point to various rows and recall with ease who sat where each week.
Joan Selby, 66, was baptized in the church 51 years ago and remembers a typical Sunday in Martinsburg: Sunday school at 9 a.m., followed by services at 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.
“That’s why I became an Episcopalian,” Thompson said with a laugh.
Thomas pulled out poster boards with collages of old photos of members, including Thompson’s parents. His father was the longtime church organ player and had attended the Martinsburg Negro School, built in 1886 on land the church transferred to the school board.
The one-room school, which served 40 to 50 students a year, closed in 1940. The property was returned to the church and now serves as a community hall.
But not every transfer went so smoothly — which is why Thompson was in Montgomery County Circuit Court earlier this month for a hearing in a lawsuit filed against a charity that has been defunct for the better part of a century.
In 1883, the church deeded the parcel for the lodge to the North Star Tabernacle Association of Faith and Charity No. 67, an association that provided life insurance and helped pay for medical treatment for freed blacks.
The Loving Charity Lodge Hall, built in 1914, “was the place to be Friday nights,” Thomas said, where movies were shown and sock hops were held inside the mahogany walls.
“When I was a little girl here,” added Selby, “this was a beautiful building.”
Unlike the school, however, the deed to the lodge hall property was never turned back over to the Warren church. This was problematic for the Warren committee.
Thompson, who helped the committee form as a nonprofit, also helped it secure more than $300,000 in grants from state and county agencies.
That money includes $50,000 from the Maryland Historic Trust in exchange for a preservation easement. But, in order to make that exchange, the trust requires that ownership of the land be “clear of all encumbrances,” as Thompson wrote in his complaint for declaratory relief and quiet title, filed in March.
Today, “there are no public records listing North Star as an organization and its last known address is unknown,” Thompson wrote in the complaint to quiet title. The organization probably went out of business early in the 20th century, he wrote.
The action named North Star and its last known trustees as defendants. On Dec. 11, Judge Robert A. Greenberg granted Thompson’s request for an order of default, and the property should belong to the Warren committee by the middle of January so long as no defendants move to vacate the order.
A preservation architect is already at work on the hall, and Thompson hopes construction can begin in the spring.
Thomas, the committee’s president, would like to see the building become a place where seniors can get medical testing, a museum and place for children to play and learn.
“We want to use it and make it in good use for the public,” she said.
The preservation work is ongoing — the committee hopes to raise another $50,000 by the end of 2014 for construction, Thompson said — but the descendants of the Martinsburg community, who return for homecoming on the fourth Sunday of each July, will have more to celebrate this year.
Thompson retired from practicing law four years ago and has not lived in the area since heading off to college at Morgan State. Still, a smile crosses his face as he stands between the school and the lodge hall. Behind him, a long single to the west, was the softball field he played on as a boy. To the east was the house where he grew up; across Whites Ferry Road, the land where he hunted squirrels and rabbits.
Thompson has done other pro bono work in his career, but the Warren committee is a special client.
“I do it because it’s part of my roots,” he said.
Information from: The Daily Record of Baltimore, http://www.mddailyrecord.com
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)