David Key grew up in a segregated Frederick County.
The 77-year-old president of the African American Resources, Cultural Heritage Society (AARCH) attended segregated schools. He remembers not being able to go shopping in some stores. The Great Frederick Fair had segregated restrooms.
AARCH presented a series of films in 2017 on “Living Treasures,” featuring Frederick County residents who shared their stories about growing up in the county. For some of those featured, the film screening was the first time they entered the Weinberg because the building was once segregated, Key said.
“A lot of people will tell you that was a long time ago and that kind of thing, but the effects that racism leaves with people are long-lived after people want to forget about it,” he said.
AARCH was started in 2000 by former Frederick Alderman William Lee, who felt that people needed to know more about African American history, Key said. The organization works to bring programs to schools to teach this history. Right now, that is mostly in private or charter schools, although AARCH would like to be part of the Frederick County Public Schools curriculum.
Key said Frederick County has come a long way in his lifetime. But there are lasting effects of segregation and racism. While it has long simmered under the surface, it has been emboldened by national politics, he said.
“You know the old adage that if you don’t know your history, you’re bound to repeat it? That’s very, very true,” Key said. “We think that there’s a lot of movement that happens, and it does, but there are remnants of that ugliness that has happened that still pops up every once in a while — maybe in a different way, but it’s still there. We have a way yet to go.”
Laws, like integration, forced change, Key said, even if attitudes did not. It takes much longer to change attitudes. That comes from being around people and looking for commonalities, he said.
Nondiscrimination laws in housing allowed people to move to areas that were not available to them before. Black residents were also able to get loans, he said, which helped them move to places that were more affordable.
The inability to get loans and other economic discrimination practices continue to have lasting effects, he said.
“My whole thing is we need to tell history in truth,” Key said.
All Saints Street, East Street by Shab Row and parts of Fifth and Sixth streets were largely occupied by the African American community, he said.
When integration became law, black students were bused from Lincoln High School, then the only county public high school black students could attend, to others in the county. White students were not bused in, Key said.
Stores also started to integrate around the same time. Befor that, black families could not go into every store in the area. Some, like shoe stores, would sell items to black families, but they would not let them try on anything in the store, said AARCH member Mary Harris.
Harris remembers not going to stores because of the attitudes of shop owners. Even if there was no corporate policy discriminating against African Americans on the local level, the store employees might make them feel uncomfortable, she said. But as a child growing up in the Adamstown area, she had chores, which meant she did not go into town often, she said.
Harris became a preschool teacher, and she said she did not have much trouble with students or their parents. She would celebrate Black History Month with the students.
Neither Key nor Harris said they learned much African American history in their schooling.
“Our history books never really told what happened,” Key said.
Harris has an interest in the Civil War, and she continues to study it for herself, learning about the efforts of the U.S. Colored Troops.
Her own family, her nieces and nephews, can learn more from her, she said. It falls on the family to teach history, in addition to what is taught in schools.
While Key will say that Frederick has come a long way in his 77 years, there is still work that needs to be done on a local and national level. He hears the language used now by white supremacist groups and even politicians. He pointed to the events in Charlottesville, where a large group of neo-Nazis and white supremacists gathered.
“The kinds of language that’s used, ‘go back to Africa,’ that kind of thing, we all heard that many times before — a long time ago — and thought that that was long gone,” he said. “But to hear it again is not only disheartening but very scary.”
Racism long stayed just under the surface, he said. With events in Charlottesville and South Carolina, it is now in the open, he said. It was in people’s faces so much that they could no longer pretend it did not exist.
“For those of us who lived that, we were aware it was always under the surface,” Key said.
Key said he has never felt unsafe in Frederick County. But with the attention to police brutality against black men, he has made changes, such as where he keeps his registration, he said. Overall, he feels comfortable in the county. The progress that has been made so far has been “tremendous,” he said, adding that people are going to come out better.
“I wouldn’t give anything ... to change the experiences I’ve had, but I can tell you I’ve learned, I can see things, I think, more clearly because of the experiences that I’ve had,” Key said.
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