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The History Keeper

A Daughter's efforts to chronicle her African-American heritage.

By Niambi Davis

Left: Marie Johnson Brown and her parents

Right: Marie Johnson Brown

In 1996, I came home to Centreville from Washington D.C., expecting that — as always — my mother would recover from her illness, and in a couple of weeks I’d be back in the nation’s capital. I did return to D.C., only this time to make a permanent move to Centreville. I became my mother’s caregiver, a soapmaker and a writer. I bought a computer and logged on to Rootsweb. My mother, Marie Johnson, was fascinated by the historical information that could be found with the click of a few keys. And until she passed away in 2007, together we embarked upon the reexamination and exploration of her many file folders, books, photos, newspaper articles and boxes filled with historical documents that revealed her dedication to African American history.

My mother was born in 1915 to parents who were both descendants of free Black landowners. Her father was born in 1860. Many find it hard to believe, but my mother had the receipts — including the original family Bible and a copy of the 1870 Census. She was, as I became, an only child and a Daddy’s girl.

I was also my mother’s shadow. Wherever her curiosity took her, I wanted to go. Of all of our trips, Harper’s Ferry, Gettysburg, and Churchville in Harford County, Maryland, remain the most memorable. On those annual fall homecoming Sundays to Churchville, I realized that before she became my mother, Marie Johnson Brown had at one time been a little girl in a self-sufficient, close-knit African American community. To my mother, it was the beloved “homeplace;” her foundation and the inspiration behind her desire to preserve African American history. Harford County became my inspiration as well.

My grandfather Franklin was born in 1860, one year before the Civil War began. His stories of family history and freedom seekers were the beginning of what would become a lifelong avocation for his daughter. As a student at Princess Anne Academy (now the University of Maryland Eastern Shore), Virginia State University, and later at Temple University (where Richard Nixon was her graduation speaker), my mother continued to collect photos and records — especially of the campuses of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). To the dismay of us both, after she freely loaned a photo album to an interested party, it was never returned.

Although my mother considered herself a collector more than a historian, she was some of both. She was a home economics teacher, but her love of history can be summed up in her own words, “I should have been a history teacher.” “Miss Marie” — as she was also known — was an untrained archivist. She owned a 19th-century graduation program from Howard University, a 1916 course catalog from Hampton University, photos of early 20th-century life on the campuses of HBCUs, and a program from a 1937 recital of the great Roland Hayes, an African American tenor and composer.

Ebony Magazine, September 1963

In a plastic box no one person could lift, she stored copies of Ebony Magazines from 1953, including one of our most prized issues celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation with Frederick Douglass on the cover. On her bookshelf, my mother kept a 1945 copy of Richard Wright’s Black Boy and a 1913 gift to her mother — a book entitled Religious Folk Songs of the Negro as Sung on the Plantations. Many of her 78 RPMs have survived a hot attic so that Ella Fitzgerald, The Ink Spots, Harry Belafonte, Billie Holiday, and Mahalia Jackson can live to spin another day on our 1965 Magnavox floor model stereo.

My mother was adamant that Black history celebrations include more than the readily recognizable names and faces. One unforgettable February, she decided that it was time to bring local African American history to places other than local churches and schools. By then, she was in her 80s and still owned enough of her mind to put the project together. When the Centreville branch of the Queen Anne’s County Free Library agreed to host the exhibit, she and I went to work. She chose the pictures, articles and captions. I typed the text and mounted each item. When the display was done to her satisfaction it was placed at the library entrance. If my mother had her way, when she was interviewed by a local reporter, the call would have lasted hours as an impromptu lesson.

The family Bible

I have inherited my mother’s boxes, file folders and photos — all in need of better preservation than I can give. Many I have donated to the Kennard African American Cultural Heritage Association, as would have been her wish. Some I have shared on Facebook with an enthusiastic response. Others were lost to water damage. I’m still in possession of many fragile sheaves of newspapers from African American newspapers from the early 20th century. My friend Jamie Thompson — an Easton area collector, kindred collecting spirit and a woman who loves to hold history in her hands — advised me to keep the crumbling, tattered sheets as best I can.

As someone who lived through Jim Crow, segregation, and integration, “Miss Marie” would have been elated at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. She would be moved by local organizations such as the Kennard African American Cultural Heritage Association, and especially by the commemorative nameplate on the kitchen that bears her name. I can hear her response to the knowledge that local communities and organizations have begun to exhibit a more inclusive history. She would say, “I never thought I’d see the day!”

I have carried on her legacy in ways that I could not have imagined. Two years ago, I appeared in three segments on local history produced by Salisbury’s ABC Channel 47. Last February, I was interviewed on a live segment at the station about the Kennard African American Cultural Heritage Association. Whenever I discover a long-lost, forgotten treasure — or sometimes a new treasure, I am reminded of my mother’s straight-ahead, unwavering dedication to our history. She would be proud to hear me described by a friend on her way to the Eastern Shore, “If you want to know about history over there, ask Niambi.”

All credit, however, goes to “Miss Marie.”

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