"Preserving Municipal History,"

Maryland Municipal League

June 26, 2002

Edward C. Papenfuse, Jr., State Archivist

with the assistance of
Karen A. Hare
Emily Oland Squires
Pat Melville
Chris Haley

Knowing your Municipal history can be helpful to a community in a number of ways.  It can be used to strengthen a sense of citizen involvement and participation through celebrating important milestones in the community's development and through an understanding of the community's origins and progress since its inception. It can assist in planning and in attracting business, as well as helping to highlight historic sites that bring tourists and improve real estate values.  It can even be helpful in documenting any previous mistakes that the community may have made, so that they can be prevented in the future.

Anyone interested in finding out about what municipalities there are in Maryland with links to current information about them should visit the Maryland Manual On Line website at the Maryland State Archives, (http://mdsa.net), the Maryland Legislature's website (http://mlis.state.md.us/) which contains 1996 data on all municipalities, recent laws relating to municipalities, and a good analysis of the Constitutional provisions relating to municipalities, and the Maryland Municipal League website which links to both our site and the Legislature's (http://www.mdmunicipal.org).  At the Archives website you can easily determine what municipal records have been transferred to our care by checking our Guide to Government Records.  Good maps of the location of Maryland Municipalities are available from the State Department of Planning (linked from the Maryland Municipal League website, Research and Information section, and from your town off of the State Archives website, http://mdsa.net).

The first step in preserving the history of a community is to inventory its historical resources, ranging from historic structures (which in turn can benefit their owners with tax incentives for their preservation) to any informational resources that help document community history.  These include official public records, private papers, oral history projects, public and private collections of photographs, and public sources of information such as previously published local histories, and newspapers among which the local or regional papers are invaluable if they have been preserved.

Every community should have at least one archivist/records administrator who has training in history and historical resource management and a working knowledge of the internet.  If one is not available on staff or as a volunteer, I would strongly urge hiring someone from one of the many fine public history companies that advertise on the web, such as History Factory and History Associates of Rockville, Maryland.

The Archivist/records administrator's  first task is to become familiar with the laws governing the care and preservation of public records in Maryland, and to document an outline of the legal history of the community, preferably on a publicly available website that is itself periodically copied into a permanent electronic archives.  Use the website to maintain a constantly updated and improved guide to the history of the community and to provide access to any on line history or histories as they are written.

To a large extent how well a community's public records have been kept will govern how good a history can be written.  Under current Maryland law, all public records must be examined and scheduled before they are disposed of in any manner.  The rules governing the scheduling of public records for retention and disposal are available on the Maryland State Archives website, http://mdsa.net.  There you will also find sample schedules (blank and filled out for one community), along with instructions for inventorying records and completing schedules for submission.  For in person advice, you may also call our senior appraisal archivist, Pat Melville at 410-260-6448, or email:  schedule@mdarchives.state.md.us.  We need to do more to make all this more user-friendly, which we are working on, but we have a good beginning on our site which should prove helpful.

There are 157 incorporated municipalities in Maryland (counting Baltimore City), of which two thirds were created before 1900.  By 1996, 14.4% of the population of Maryland resided in municipalities (exclusive of Baltimore City), with Rockville and Frederick vying for first and second place as the largest (slightly over 46,000 each) and Eagle Harbor in Prince George's County the smallest with a population of 39.  Six years ago the average size was 4,688, while a total of 62 municipalities had fewer than 1,000 residents (see http://mlis.state.md.us/other/Legislative_Handbooks/Volume%20VI/chapter3.htm).  Sadly, we have records and retention schedules for only 25, although those include the four largest jurisdictions, Rockville, Frederick, Hagerstown, and Annapolis.  I can't stress enough how important it is to inventory and keep track of the public records of the town.  We recently were contacted by one community whose history dates back to before the Civil War.  Through neglect of previous public officials they have lost their town minutes books from the beginning until 1930.  Their story is not an unusual one.  My uncle was the town attorney for a community in upstate New York.  When the town barn burned he rescued the first minutes dating back to the 1820s.  No one was interested in them so he gave them to my great aunt Sara who for the remaining years of her life kept them under her bed.  When she died I discovered them, had them rebound, and alerted our then Congressman, Frank Horton, who in a thoughtful ceremony presented them back to the town on condition that they would see to their permanent preservation.  Not all communities are that lucky.  Take for instance some of the earliest minute books of Frederick County which were stolen out of the Frederick County Court House seventy or so years ago.  They just recently appeared at auction (too late for the Archives to replevin them) and have now disappeared into private hands.  They may appear on Ebay someday, but we have reached a dead end in tracking them down.  It seems the auctioneer fled town for the West Coast recently taking his sales records with him.

It is essential that public officials take an interest in preserving not only the record of their own actions, but the records of those that preceded them.  Tomorrow's citizens will have expected you to have been exemplary custodians of past accomplishments, permitting them to explore at their leisure Maryland's rich municipal heritage.  Historians have come a long way from the historiography of only a few short generations ago, when the biographies of a few "great men" and the actions of their governments and armies formed the basis of what was considered authentic history.  Today's scholars recognize that if they really want to understand the importance of history, they have to look beyond politics, war, and diplomacy to what Fernand Braudel and his Annales school called "the structures of everyday life."1  As American historians of the last century embraced the new social history and recognized that there was indeed much merit in studying the culture, mentality, and lifestyles of the common man, they began looking for new sources of information that were closer to home.  Local sources suddenly became crucial, for the history of individuals and communities is found in the details.  Today's official correspondence, reports, minute books, account books, and other documents originating from the operation of local governments are the sources for tomorrow's local historians.

Local history is history from the "bottom up;" it is history at the grass roots.  From local history we can piece together the larger picture of the state, but the reverse is not true; national history sheds little light on the way our own families and neighbors lived and worked in our own communities.  Local history is valuable not only because we can use specifics to make generalizations about state and national history, but it has its own intrinsic worth in that it contributes to a sense of self-identity and promotes self-respect.  It satisfies the curiosity of our children and grandchildren as they see the unique roles that their communities played in national events.  It gives us a feeling of connectedness to the people and places of our childhoods, to our neighbors and to the world at large.  Archivists working in the search room of the Maryland State Archives can attest to the tremendous growth in interest in family history and genealogy over the past 25 years.  Only when individuals and communities become aware of the inherent value of their own histories can they more intelligently work together to preserve the records and documents that tell their stories, and  make those sources available to others.  As one historian put it, "A good past is a guarantee of a good future; and to preserve the records of what came before us promotes that sense of continuity which gives us the faith to continue our own work, with the expectation that our descendants will find it equally interesting."2

The chair of this session leads a municipality that has turned to its history to pursue its goal of an African American History Museum in North Brentwood, including 20,000 square feet of museum space; 200-seat black box theatre, and alternative gallery space for travelling exhibits, in all a $14.6 million investment.  In addition, through the North Brentwood Historical Society, they have secured funding from the Maryland Historical Trust in the amount of $15,000 for the second phase of their oral history of the community.   In their quest for a better understanding of their past, they have had the valuable assistance of  Susan Pearl, research historian with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, and a former resident, Frank H. Wilson, associate professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.  At the request of the Mayor and City Council, Susan Pearl inventoried all the historical structures in the community in order to facilitate being designated an historic district with all the accompanying tax benefits.  Her 1991, 75-page study is replete with historical photographs and brief descriptions of buildings.

According to Susan Pearl and Professor Wilson, North Brentwood, incorporated in 1924 (Chapter 508, Laws of Maryland), is the first African American incorporated town in Prince George's County and in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area.  In February 2000, Professor Wilson gave a paper at the Golda Meir Library at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee entitled:  "Footsteps from North Brentwood:  A Sociologist Reconstructs the Life & Heritage of His Hometown," which was based upon on his 1998 book.   The University of Wisconsin Milwaukee website summarized his presentation:

Through photographs, interviews, artifacts, and archival evidence, Prof. Wilson's work demonstrates how generations of ex-slaves and descendants of slaves organized their lives and built this suburban community from the 1890s through the post-WWII years. He published the results of his research in "Footsteps from North Brentwood: From Reconstruction to the Post-World War II Years." Having been raised in North Brentwood himself, Prof. Wilson's history highlights the importance of family and extended family in shaping the town. The inter-family relationships of North Brentwood are rooted in the shared experiences of their ancestors--black men who fought in the Maryland Colored Regiment during the Civil War; shared dreams and interests of owning land and homes; shared memories of civic participation and association to improve community life. These family relationships were further strengthened by the boundaries of racial discrimination and segregation, difficult times, and poverty. (http://www.uwm.edu/Dept/Library/special/99schol.htm last edited on Monday, May 15, 2000; accessed 6/24/2002)
North Brentwood is to be commended on such a superb beginning to their documentation of the history of their community. By following up on inventorying their municipal records and scheduling them for permanent retention in a setting of their choice (possibly the new museum?), along with finding a permanent home for Susan Pearl's and Professor Wilson's research files, and any other private papers and photographs bearing on the history of the community, North Brentwood's place in the history of Maryland will be not only secure but a model for other municipalities around the state.

The oldest extant municipality in Maryland is Annapolis, the capital, founded in 1694 and chartered by Queen Anne in 1708.  Over the years the surviving town records have been carefully inventoried and retired to the State Archives, making their historical records one of the best municipal collections in any state, comprising over half of all the municipal records in our collections.  We have placed the Annapolis records inventories and schedules for retention and disposition on line at http://mdsa.net, where you can review them at your leisure, but I would like to close with an example that in part emerges from the official records of the town, a story that has meaning for us on a number of different levels.  It might be called the life and times of Councilman Wiley H. Bates.  From his biographer we know that Bates was born into slavery in North Carolina in August, 1859.  After the Civil War, he worked as a water boy and freight boy on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad.  His father died when he was 13, and Bates found himself working on a boat that traveled on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal between Georgetown, Washington, D.C., and Cumberland, Maryland.  It wasn't long before Bates' mother sought a more stable life for her son and moved with him to Annapolis, where he worked culling oysters.  When he got a little older he joined Asbury United Methodist Church, the oldest black congregation in town.  Incredibly energetic and optimistic in a society that had afforded him no formal education to speak of and institutionalized racial discrimination, he worked hard at anything he tried:  waiting tables, crabbing, splitting wood and peddling it on the streets.  His outgoing and friendly nature earned him a trusting clientele that later patronized the grocery store he opened at 54 Cathedral Street while still in his early 20s.  He took a bride and made a home for himself a few doors down from the store.  As the grocery business grew, Bates became known for his fair business practices and honest dealings with his customers, who called him the "Negro Gentleman."3

Bates' popularity and leadership skills earned him a seat on the Annapolis city council in July 1897, when he was elected Annapolis' third consecutive black alderman representing the third (later fourth) ward and it is for this service we turn to the municipal records.  During his two years on the council, Bates served as a member of the standing committees on public buildings and electric lights.4  Bates worked with the mayor, the city counselor, and five other council members to conduct such city business as electing city police officers, overseeing the grading and paving of city streets, approving the installation of electric lights and telephone poles throughout the city and the laying of additional track for the Annapolis and Baltimore Short Line R.R. Co., as well as the granting or denying of city liquor licenses.  Far from being a passive member of the council, Bates took a leading roll as an advocate for city blacks from his earliest days on the council.  In early October 1897, he spearheaded an effort to petition the legislature for funds to build the city's first public school for "colored" children.5  When in May 1898 the city council ordered an additional appropriation to help pay the salaries of teachers at the all white Annapolis High School in order for the school year to extend into June, Bates made sure that the salaries of black teachers were increased for the same purpose.6  In October 1898, Bates proposed a council resolution condemning the lynching of  Wright Smith, a black man accused of assaulting two white women, who was dragged from the Annapolis City jail in the middle of the night and then shot in the back while trying to flee a mob of angry white men.  Bates called the lynching a disgrace to the city and cited his belief that Smith would have been brought to justice shortly by due process of  law.  Although Governor Lloyd Lowndes  publicly condemned the lynching as "an outrage,"7 Bates' resolution was defeated in the city council with only one other member voting in favor of it.8

Bates did not serve again on the Council but his place was taken by other members of the African American community.  By 1908 racism was so rampant in the city and elsewhere in the state, that the Maryland legislature, having lost at state-wide referendum, attempted to disenfranchise African Americans at the local level by passing a new ordinance for Annapolis that in effect said that if your grandfather could not vote, you could not either (1908 Laws of Maryland, Chapter 525).  That meant that the descendants of African Americans slave or free, could no longer vote or hold office.  By 1908 James Albert Adams was serving on the Annapolis City Council in place of Wiley Bates.  He lost his seat, not to regain it until 1915, when the Supreme Court upheld the right to vote and hold office of another Annapolitan, John B. Anderson, a veteran of the Civil War.

By then Wiley Bates had retired from the grocery business in 1912, and was one of the wealthiest black residents in town.  He invested in local real estate and built on his reputation as a champion of improved education for blacks.   In the 1920s, Bates donated $500 of his own money toward the purchase of land to build a new black high school in Annapolis.  The new school opened in 1933 and was named the "Wiley Bates High School" in his honor.  At the age of 69 he published an autobiographical book of "sayings" that told of his deep Christian faith, his belief in the value of perseverance, hard work, thrift, brotherly love and a good measure of "pluck."  Aware that the basic needs of food and shelter for many of the older blacks in Annapolis were not being met on a regular basis,9 Bates directed in his will that one of his Annapolis homes be incorporated as "The Bates Old Peoples Home" to be used as a refuge for elderly blacks "regardless of sect."10  He died in 1935 at the age of 76, a testimony to the fruitfulness of diligence, optimism, and the persistent struggle for civil, economic  and social freedom.

We can tell Bates's story today largely because the municipal sources were preserved in a central location and made available to the public.  From the proceedings of the Annapolis city council dating from 1720, the original bylaws and ordinances dating from 1779, city commission reports from 1843, and the mayor's case files from the 1950s, a wealth of information lies at the fingertips of the anyone wishing to more completely uncover the secrets of  life in Annapolis over the past 350 years.

Take time to let us help with preserving your history.  All of us want to know your stories-- the stories of the individuals who have lived and worked in your towns--you, your parents and your grandparents.  The Maryland State Archives was created as the Hall of Records in 1935, only one year before the founding of the Maryland Municipal League.  As an independent state agency, the Archives is charged not only with the collection, custody, and preservation of state records and documents of permanent value, but also of county and municipal files not currently in use.  Where local facilities are poor, centralization of town and municipal records in a state repository is a practical solution to preserving local documents no longer useful for administrative purposes but rich in the history of the community.  When local resources do not permit securing the services of an Archivist/Records Administrator, let us help in establishing standards and systems of archival care for your records.   Records deemed of permanent value may be transferred to the state archives as determined by established retention schedules approved by the state archivist.  We will gladly take on this legally mandated responsibility or share it with you to the degree that our resources permit.  Of the 157 municipal governments in Maryland, we have yet to establish records retention and disposal schedules for 132.  Most recently we have worked with Annapolis (2000), Ocean City (2000), Taneytown (2001), and Frederick (2001-2002).  Encourage your municipalities to do likewise.

We realize that in the past there has been some concern about the loss of material to Annapolis, somewhat like the last scene in the Raiders of the Lost Ark where the Ark is being wheeled into an apparently endless warehouse of similar unlabled crates.  Let me reassure you that the advent of the Internet has made it possible to absolve most of those fears.  With help from your community many records can even be brought on line (as we are doing with the Subdivision plats that map most of your communities at plats.net (username: plato, password: plato#).  The Maryland State Archives stands ready to work with you and the Maryland Municipal League to help you know what you have, know where it is located, and to help make its existence known so that the best of local history can be written about you.  Together we can develop model retention schedules that will serve as checklists for town councils to systematically handle the deposition of their permanent retired records and documents with the State Archives or at some other equally reliable institution.  Together we can place our inventories of our collective memory on line for the easy reference of citizen and scholar alike.  As the Maryland Municipal League moves closer to realizing its goal of "building inclusive communities,"11 let us ensure that the process is safely preserved for future generations of historians and interested citizens so that the unique story of every Maryland town can be told.

Thank you.


1.  Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life:  The Limits of the Possible, 1979.  Reprint, New York : Harper & Row, 1981.

2.  Lewis Mumford, "The Value of Local History," in Carol Kammen, ed. The Pursuit of Local History (Walnut Creek, CA:  AltaMira, A Sage Publications, 1996), 88.

3.  Wiley H. Bates, Researches, Sayings and Life of Wiley H. Bates (Annapolis:  1928), p. 25.

4.  The other standing committees were finance, streets, Market House, fire department, and by-laws.  Maryland State Archives ANNAPOLIS MAYOR AND ALDERMEN (Proceedings) 1892-1898, MSA M49-14, 1/22/1/66, p. 350.

5.  Maryland State Archives ANNAPOLIS MAYOR AND ALDERMEN (Proceedings) 1892-1898, MSA M49-14, 1/22/1/66, p. 374.  The Stanton School was built in 1900.  Before 1900, the Gallilean Fisherman School, founded by Methodists, and St. Mary's Catholic Church served as private schools for black children.  See Philip L. Brown, The Other Annapolis 1900-1950 (Annapolis:  The Annapolis Publishing Company, 1994), p. 53.

6.  Maryland State Archives ANNAPOLIS MAYOR AND ALDERMEN (Proceedings) 1892-1898, MSA M49-14, 1/22/1/66, pp. 419-420.

7.  "Annapolis Lynchers," The Baltimore Weekly Sun, 8 October 1898.

8.  Maryland State Archives ANNAPOLIS MAYOR AND ALDERMEN (Proceedings) 1898-1901, MSA M49-15, 1/22/1/67, p. 27.

9.  Maryland State Archives ANNAPOLIS MAYOR AND ALDERMEN (Proceedings) 1892-1898, MSA M49-14, 1/22/1/66, p. 371.

10.  Maryland State Archives ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY REGISTER OF WILLS (Wills) MSA T2559-11, WMN 1, 1/1/10/56.

11.  Maryland Municipal League.