By Commissioner Steven X. Lee, Maryland Commission on African American History & Culture
Journeying west along the Old National Road (Frederick Road) from Baltimore City to Frederick, Maryland, the historic mill town of Oella midway en route can easily be passed unnoticed. It lies at the western border of Baltimore County, where the Old National Road meets the Patapsco River. It is the synergy of river and road that imparts a big history to this small-town America region.
Research for a publication-in-progress, “Patapsco River Communities – Historic Oella & Ellicott City ”, has revealed many compelling and diverse his- and her-stories of the American experience from this picturesque landscape. Among them are some from a small vintage African American neighborhood in Oella that is vanishing with the tides of time and development. Oella’s African American neighborhood, often called “Mount Gilboa” in its heyday, has been a part of the town since its earliest beginnings. It was in the 1700s that free blacks first acquired land in this area, evolving a close-knit neighborhood that ran for about a quarter-mile along the eastern sector of Oella Avenue, from Westchester Avenue to Old Frederick Road.
Oella’s most famous early American resident, Mr. Benjamin Bannaky, was a member of one of the founding families of this African American community. Better known as Benjamin Banneker — scientist, clockmaker, author, abolitionist, farmer, and a surveyor of the Federal Territory — he, like his contemporaries Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, was one of American society’s earliest renaissance men and innovators. And but for the few months in 1791 that he was away surveying the land for the nation’s capital, he spent his entire life on the family farmstead in Oella.It was Benjamin’s parents, Robert and Mary Bannaky, who had purchased the land in 1737. Their 100-acre property flanked Oella Avenue and crossed the Old National Road, including hilltop, hillside and wetlands terrain, with natural springs, access to the Coopers Branch stream, and the Patapsco River. The varied landscape enabled the Bannakys to have a viable and sustainable farm, from which they provided fresh produce, tobacco, honey, herbs, candles and other products to the burgeoning town. From the number of oyster shells found during the Maryland Historical Trust’s 1980s archaeological digs around the Bannaky cabin foundations, it is evident that the fruits of the river were harvested as well.
The African American neighborhood ends at the highest point in the landscape of this segment of Oella Avenue, at Westchester Avenue. Here it culminates with Oella’s oldest institution – Mount Gilboa A.M.E. Church. It too shares an early American genesis. In colonial times, its property was part of the large Williams estate. When Mary Williams died in 1786, in her will* she freed her slaves and left them this parcel of land on which to build their house of worship. Although the original wooden structure burned down in the 19th century, the church and congregation of Mount Gilboa A.M.E. have continued at this site since its inception.The church came to be a symbol and namesake for the African American neighborhood that developed eastward down Oella Avenue. During the nation’s Bicentennial, the state monument of an obelisk in honor of Benjamin Banneker was here erected on the church grounds (the 1985 archaeological discovery of Banneker’s actual homestead further down Oella Avenue had not yet been made). Mount Gilboa A.M.E. Church continues as an enduring symbol among Oella’s local legacies.
What was life like for the African American neighbors of “Mount Gilboa” in Oella? That can best be found in the telling of those who lived it. And Baltimore County historian Louis S. Diggs must be credited for his initiative to document many of those stories in the oral tradition. One of the Diggs interviews conducted in the late 1990s is with Mrs. Lydia Harris Cole, a native and resident of Oella Avenue in the twentieth century.“ …My name is Lydia Harris, I was born in Oella, in July of 1940. The home I’m in now was always in the family. My aunt, Addie Hall, came from Washington and bought this home that I’m living in now in 1962; and she passed away in 1986. I’m a descendant of the Halls. My grandmother and grand-father were Jeanette and Caleb Hall. They lived next door.
… This is the African American part of Oella, from the Country Corner Store, on down to Old Frederick Road, mostly African Americans lived here, except [for the white families of] the Treuths, the Boones, and the Colfields. Some of the African Americans [families] are the Rideouts, the Halls, the Matthews, and the Hendersons.
…We weren’t allowed in the section of Oella down the road where the white people mostly lived. The line was the Country Corner Store. But, regardless, we all got along pretty well.
…The Country Corner Store was the one place we all went to daily. When I was a kid, a Mr. Johnson owned the store, and later, Mr. Jay Patel purchased it. Both owners were very good to the Colored people.We couldn’t go to the Westchester School [in Oella] because that was for the White kids. …We used to have to catch the streetcar right behind my house to go to school, which was Banneker School in Catonsville. We went from the first to the twelfth grade there.
…African American kids at Banneker School came from all over the area: Woodstock, Granite, Relay, Halethorpe, Arbutus, and Randallstown.Some of the older Blacks in the community attended school in Mount Gilboa AME Church, in the bottom of the church. My mother, uncles, etc., attended that school.
The neighborhood is not like it used to be in the old days. I remember the big holidays, like the fourth of July when everyone had cookouts and activities. We’d just go from house to house having a great time. People here don’t do that now.Growing up in Oella was nice. We played mostly among ourselves. I would play with the Edmond girls, and my brother would play with the guys. We couldn’t go out to play until after the work was done, and back in those days, there was no electricity, no running water, so we had a lot of chores to do. We had to do all of our washing on the washboard, carry the water three and four times and dump it, and in the wintertime, had to hang the clothes up on the line in the snow. There was a well right on the property, and we would pump the water and carry it in the house, put it on the stove to heat it, and then put it in the tub. Of course we had an outhouse in the backyard. Plumbing and sewage didn’t come around in our area until 1956. We had all the usual animals on our property, chickens, pigs, dogs and cats. When we got sick, we had some of the old country curing by my grandmother.
There used to be as many as sixteen or seventeen African American families here; I recall that this community was called Mount Gilboa years ago. I have some letters that my uncle wrote when he was in the war that he wrote back to my grandmother. On the front of the envelope was her address in Mount Gilboa, Maryland.”
The enclave that was once the “Mount Gilboa” neighborhood now fades to memories. Most of its elders have passed, and younger generations moved on to other locales. Old houses have been replaced or made anew, as Oella has been redeveloped and rediscovered for the unique charm it encompasses. But the icons of the community remain. Mount Gilboa A.M.E. Church, the Country Corner Store, the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park & Museum are all within a stroll, and like many other features of Oella, make for a surprisingly intriguing day trip into Maryland Americana.
A museologist, Commissioner Lee also served as the Founding Director for the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park & Museum.
* – African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation Collection