The Hidden History of Black Sykesville
A look inside Sykesville's renovated "Old Colored Schoolhouse." Pat Greenwald acquired these desks from a Catholic School in Pittsburgh that opened in 1904. You can read about Pat and the amazing coincidence surrounding the desks in Volume One of Sykesville Stories.
You might ask, why a whole section on black Sykesville? Was there even a black Sykesville, and why should anyone care?
Yes, there was a black Sykesville, and it's very interesting. At least to me. In fact black Sykesville, and the man who told me all about it, sent me on a long, fascinating, and fruitful journey. His name is Warren Dorsey. He would be 102 now, as I write this at the end of November, 2022, if not for some truck in the rain, and a terrible case of precision bad timing. Warren really wasn't ready to go.
I recently wrote a story about Warren, and you can read it here.
This will be an evolving section of the site, and a jumping off point to the stories I want to tell. I told quite a few in my book In Carrie's Footprints, the Long Walk of Warren Dorsey, but Warren and I have done countless Zoom sessions together, and I have so much more to tell.
For now, we can start with four broad topics, and eventually build from there.
There were many slaves in the so-called "Freedom" district of Carroll County, but there's very little information about them. For instance, where did they live? Where are they buried? How did they live? How did they get here? Where did they come from? How much did it cost to buy one?
And let's clear this up right away. The word Freedom is not used in its historic context as freedom from oppression. Apparently someone was giving away land here. Buy a plot, get a plot free. That sort of thing. So the freedom in the Freedom District had to do with free land and nothing to do with free people.
Consider the Patterson family. There was George. There was Prudence. They had a daughter named Florence and briefly a son named George, Jr. They had many acres of land and thrived from at least 1840 through 1870. They were far outnumbered by their slaves. Let's say, at one point, three Pattersons holding 30 slaves, or 10 for each. We know where the Pattersons lived. We know where they went to church. We know where they're buried. We know the borders of their thousand acres, and the exact spot of their mansion.
But we know nothing at all about their slaves. Well hardly. We do have some numbers and names and ages, and we know how much George Patterson would pay to retrieve one, $500, as he advertised in the Westminster papers when one got away. That's about $20,000 in today's money.
Factory Row (the colored row)
Once the slaves were freed, they started to leave the area. They headed for Baltimore and Philadelphia. But there were an awful lot of them, and some didn't get very far. In fact, sometime after the Civil War, a small community of black people developed just outside the limits of what would become the town of Sykesville. Not much is known about these people.
In articles written after the Civil War in the latter years of the 19th century, the Democratic Advocate mentions this community several times, typically in condescending terms, sometimes in hostile terms, often with amusement. But never with much detail. The paper refers to it as both "factory row" and "the colored row."
Where was this exactly? Who were these people? Is it possible to find out?
It seems safe to say they were probably former slaves, but how many were they? Why did they gather in this one place? How did they live?
Who built the houses? Why was it called "factory row?" And what became of them all?
I think I can answer two of those questions. In the 1840s and 1850s, James Sykes operated a cotton factory down at the river. It was a good location. He diverted river water to power his machines. The cotton came up by train from the south. It was processed in Sykesville then sent up to textile mills in New England.
The labor required specialized skill, so he imported people with those skills from England. (He was British and arrived here at a young age.) He donated land and helped build a church. And he built houses for his laborers.
It seems likely that the houses might have been referred to as "Factory Row," It also seems likely that after the cotton operation failed, the war came through, and then the flood, that the houses had become rundown and vacant.
There were a lot of freed slaves looking for a place to stay, and thus was born the "Colored Row."
We know a lot about this neighborhood, mainly because of Warren Dorsey, who was born there in 1920, left the area in the forties, but until his death at 101 could still remember every house and every person who ever lived up there. Or close.
There were 14 houses and several families lived there over the years. There were the Johnsons, the Norrises, the Dorseys, and many others, who we'll meet.
These are the families whose children attended Sykesville's "Old Colored Schoolhouse." They attended St. Luke's Church. They shopped on Main Street and worked on area farms and stores. They were poor and barely got by for many years. They had a great baseball team. They went to Robert Moton High School in Westminster.
There was another small African American community congregated around White Rock Road in Gaither, just outside Sykesville. Some of them attended the same school as the children from Oklahoma Hill. They had their own church. They still have their own church.
They had names like Hudson, Dorsey, Shephard, Rheubottom, Lowman, and Gassaway. Many of them also went to Robert Moton. Some were born before the Civil War. Were they slaves?
Not far from where these people lived, there's an old barn set back off Gaither Road. The entire roof of the barn facing out toward the road is painted.
The paint is fading. It's a giant painting of the Confederate flag. It's possible the barn is no longer there, but it was there up till very recent times and easy to see from Gaither in winter when the trees drop their leaves and certain truths show through.