The Colored Row
Photo by Jack White. The intersection of Forsythe and West Friendship, where the first (or last) of the dilapidated houses of Factory Row once stood.
Or Factory Row
The white people referred to it as the "row," "factory row," the "colored row," and "little Africa."
It was a collection of houses just over the bridge outside the Sykesville town limits, and easy walking distance from the Howard Cotton Factory owned and operated by James Sykes
on the Howard side.
We don't have any pictures taken inside the Sykes cotton factory, which ceased operations before the Civil War and the advent of practical photography.
However, it might have looked something like this.
The girl is a 14-year old spinner in the Berkshire Cotton Mills taken in Adams, Massachusetts by Lewis W. Hine in 1916.
Sykes would have employed similar, but probably less modern equipment.
It was a collection of houses just over the bridge outside the Sykesville town limits, and easy walking distance from the Howard Cotton Factory owned and operated by James Sykes.
In the earlier days, when his business along the river was booming, Sykes imported some 200 laborers from England to work in his factory, which required a certain degree and type of skilled labor. He built houses for them, and these were most likely those houses, or some of those houses.
Apparently most of the houses on the row survived the flood of 1868 that wiped out so much of the town. Sykes had gone out of business sometime before the Civil War, and it's likely the houses he'd built for his workers sat abandoned.
Eventually, most likely shortly after the war and the emancipation of Maryland's slaves, the newly freed slaves moved into the empty dwellings, where they were tolerated, but not terribly well-respected.
These clippings from the Democratic Advocate, written several years apart, seem to sum up the attitude fairly well, and also prove that by 1880, and probably earlier, a black community had developed around these houses.
April 24 of 1880
The only element that don’t appear to revive in Sykesville is the Colored Element. What is known as the "Row," or "Little Africa," is on the Howard side.
It is a row of houses that was built for factory hands. In these eight or ten houses are rammed, crammed and jammed Negroes of all sizes, ages and color, the relationship some of them bear to each other, would be hard to define. If there be any excitement in the place, you ought to see them come out. It’s like kicking an ant hill.
July 21, 1883
Early in the afternoon the agent arrived, and by 7 o’clock a start was made, the engine running to the barrack of Capt. Hugg, and there attaching the thresher they returned to the village, where a large crowd awaited it, in fact the people turned out en masse.
There were merchants, doctors, farmers, mechanics and men who do nothing. The Negroes of the Row turned out to a baby, they were there all shades, from the ebony black to the dirty drab.
January 2, 1886
Christmas was an unusually quiet day in Sykesville, the only diversion was in the Factory Row on the Howard side. They began to celebrate too soon, and by ten o’clock every nigger in the Row wanted to fight.
Justices Forsyth and Favour were called on to quell the disturbance. They found black eyes, bloody noses and ugly razor cuts among the crowd. The presence of these two dignitaries, although they both showed considerable Christmas, had a soothing effect, and the troubled waters were calmed.
July 3, 1886
The colored people will have a camp meeting here, commencing on July 9th and ending the 19th. It will be held on the factory green.
The Democratic Advocate was a weekly situated in Westminster, and that's where it focused its attention. For many years, however, it typically included at least a column of news about Sykesville.
Going through some forty years of Democratic Advocates, it's hard to find more than a few references to the people who lived on factory row, and then on June 17, 1910, the paper reported that the houses had been torn down.
"The row of dilapidated houses on the Hugg farm, commonly known as the Colored Row, has been torn down for sanitary purposes, and instead of 'blackberries,' the ground is expected to yield a large crop of potatoes."
No doubt "blackberries" was a sly (or not so sly) racial reference.
There's no mention of the people who lived there. Were they already gone? Were they evicted? Where did they go?
The Thief in the Last House
When they tore the houses down, apparently they missed one. According to Warren Dorsey, the last of those houses was still there at the corner of West Friendship and Forsythe, at least up until the late 1920s. A man named Mack Brooks lived there with his son, Benjamin, a famous petty thief.
Benjamin Brooks wasn't what you'd call a hardened criminal. He just liked to steal small things for the fun of it. He was a prankster. Once while sitting beside a man on a bus, he removed the man's belt and got off the bus with it. The man didn't notice a thing, until, presumably, he stood to get off the bus and his pants fell down.
Somewhere along the line, that final home met its end. Maybe it was demolished. Maybe it collapsed. Or maybe, like so many other old Sykesville buildings that once stood and are now long forgotten, it burned.
There are no potatoes over there now, no blackberries, and no signs of human life, just a couple street signs, and the lush, green nature that's grown over the land where families from England, and other families, a generation or two removed from Africa, once lived out their lives in what today, we would surely consider squalor.