Located a stone’s throw away from Route 1 stands Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center: a modestly sized and neatly adorned establishment that anchors the rich cultural heritage of Prince George’s County. In the late 1700s, this area was known for its primarily black and enslaved population. Today, it is one of the most affluent African American communities in the nation. The museum, which is situated in North Brentwood, provides insight into the area’s historic development, hosts various exhibitions that celebrate black artists, and continues to offer virtual tours through the COVID-19 pandemic in order to sustain its community connection.
North Brentwood’s History and Development
Black history in Maryland extends to well before this country was even formed. The first African Americans arrived in 1634 as slaves, on a trading ship that also carried settlers from England. A little over a century later, one half of Maryland’s planters owned slaves. The numbers only continued to rise as more white people pursued agricultural trade. From 1790 to 1850, the enslaved population of Maryland surpassed the white population, and Prince George’s County held the highest concentration. After the Civil War, freed African Americans found themselves struggling to stabilize their lives, and African American communities began to form as a way of offering the necessary structure.
North Brentwood was one such community. The area was developed by land owner Captain Wallace Bartlett, who led an infantry of volunteer African American soldiers during the war. He converted farm track land that was in a flood-prone area into parcels to sell to soldiers, former slaves, and other black families. The first houses were built in 1892, and in 1898 a streetcar was installed: an unusually advanced development for that time. Growth continued in the early 1900s in the form of a school, a Colored Citizens Association that ensured people had access to basic amenities such as supermarkets and doctors, as well as over a dozen other dwellings. By 1924, North Brentwood made history when it was incorporated as the county’s only politically, socially, and economically self-sufficient town.
According to the Prince George’s Museum, African Americans in the area maintained resilience against all odds and staked out a spot for themselves through strong community bonds and family life. Community members went to church together, prepared holiday meals together, and generally depended on each other. Over time, North Brentwood would go on to turn out several prominent African American figures, including the town’s first black sheriff and Lillian Beverly, the town’s first black female mayor and an eventual founder of the museum itself.
Meanwhile, North Brentwood continued to distinguish itself as a community despite the setbacks presented by segregation. The town, like those around it, were “sundown towns”, meaning that any black people discovered outside after dark were arrested. Citizens had to figure out ways to earn a living while also avoiding conflicts with the law. The area’s origins as a cheap flood land also presented a problem. In 1950, the community successfully fought for the installation of a levee in order to allow its residents to continue safely living there. Today, North Brentwood stands as one of the most affluent African American communities in the nation. A 2017 report found that among its 85% African American community, the median income stands a grand shy of $110,000. The foundations built by the area’s ancestors clearly have held strong.
Prince George Museum and Cultural Center
The museum was founded in 1998 as an extension of the North Brentwood Historical Society, which undertook the documentation of the area’s cultural heritage. It now stands to relay the unique history of Brentwood, while also continuing the African American cultural narrative by showing various artists. One ongoing virtual exhibit by David Cassady, for instance, celebrates African American art as a genre unto itself that “comes out of a particular (although not monolithic) shared historical and sociopolitical reality, one that is unique to African Americans.” Other past exhibits featured the work of African American poets, paintings that strive to express the varied emotional experiences of black women, and an exhibit titled “Transforming Anew: Perspectives of Black Men” that brought in three different artists to shine a light on the portrayal of the black male image. All the exhibits have ties to Prince George County’s African American heritage, and offer gateways to exploring other landmarks in the area.
While the museum is closed for the duration of the pandemic, it hosts virtual tours that allow online travelers to engage with the rich history of North Brentwood. Anyone with an internet connection can join in the educational experience—no car or mask necessary.
Elisia Guerena Dec 10, 2020 Visual Arts
Elisia Guerena Dec 10, 2020
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