Announcing the Chair of the Maryland Heritage Areas Program’s New Grants Review Panel

By Ennis Barbery Smith, Assistant Administrator, Maryland Heritage Areas Program

The Maryland Heritage Areas Program is thrilled to announce the successful formation of its new Grants Review Panel, made up of 20 individuals from across the state of Maryland. The 20 panelists represent a wide range of areas of expertise – heritage tourism, public art, historic preservation, education, project management, museums, marketing, and other fields – all of which relate to the types of projects that are eligible for funding from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA).

In autumn of 2019, the program held an open call for panelists, inviting members of the public to nominate themselves or others to review MHAA grants in FY 2021. As part of the process, six state agencies nominated representatives with relevant expertise, and MHAA staff invited Maryland’s seven ethnic and cultural commissions to nominate panelists. In total, nearly 70 nominations were received.

The 20 individuals who will make up the FY 2021 Grants Review Panel are diverse not only in terms of expertise, but also in terms of racial and ethnic background, gender, and geographic associations. The Panel includes Commissioners from the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs, the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture, and the Governor’s Commission on Hispanic Affairs. It also includes representatives from the all corners of the State: from Garrett County in the west to Worcester County on the Eastern Shore.

Mr. Anthony J. “Tony” Spencer will chair the new Grants Review Panel in its inaugural year. Spencer was nominated to serve on the Panel by the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture, on which he also serves as a Commissioner.

Mr. Anthony J. “Tony” Spencer, Chair of the Maryland Heritage Areas Program’s Grants Review Panel

Born, raised, and educated in Anne Arundel County, Spencer has an extensive background as an artist, as well as a background in public administration and a track record of serving his community. His CV includes time spent in the United States Marine Corps and a 23-year career with the Annapolis Fire Department. He holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration and has served on the Anne Arundel County Public School Board, on the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, and as a grants evaluator for the Maryland State Board of Education. Currently, he devotes his time to the arts. He is the founder of A. J. Spencer Consultants, LLC and Enrapture Records. Plus, he manages a career as a performing artist, which has included appearances with a host of local, regional, national, and international artists and philharmonic orchestras.

Spencer shared these thoughts on his new role as Chair: “I have come to understand the value of giving back and serving the greater community. Serving with the Maryland Heritage Areas Program as a grant evaluator provides me the opportunity to ensure that the communities and organizations within Maryland have access to resources to research, preserve, present, and celebrate our collective histories.”

The deadline for Intent-to-Apply forms – the first step in the MHAA application process – was January 31, 2020, and the Program received over 240 forms, requesting over $10.4 million in grant funds. With such a strong turnout, MHAA staff are expecting a large number of applications this year. The panelists will soon be busy reviewing the applications, and the Program is grateful for their willingness to read, review, and rank the hundreds of applications that come in each year. The panelists’ duties will also include participating in a training session and two day-long grants review meetings. Be on the lookout for our follow-up blog post, which will include more panelist profiles!

Baltimore National Heritage Area Uses Increased State Funding to Develop Innovative Neighborhood Placemaking Grant Program

By Ennis Barbery Smith, Maryland Heritage Areas Program Assistant Administrator

In years past, the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA) has provided up to $15,000 annually to each of the 13 Certified Heritage Areas across the state of Maryland for locally-administered “mini-grant” programs, but starting last year MHAA increased this funding level to $25,000 per heritage. Compared with the larger project grants available through MHAA, mini-grants allow Certified Heritage Areas to support smaller-scale projects, activities, and partners.

A map of Maryland’s 13 Certified Heritage Areas

This funding increase allowed the Baltimore National Heritage Area (BNHA) to design and launch the Neighborhood Placemaking Grant Program, which provides funding to help neighborhoods in the heritage area become visitor-ready and highlight the unique cultural heritage that each neighborhood has to offer. Eligible projects fall into three categories:

  • Navigate Your Neighborhood: Festivals, performances, re-enactments, and events that promote heritage tourism and attract visitors
  • Plan for Your Neighborhood: Planning and feasibility studies for capital projects, vacant lot development planning, and project evaluations
  • Green Your Neighborhood: Projects that promote neighborhood greening activities, environmental stewardship, cleanliness, beautification, and citizen community education

The overwhelming response that this grant program received has revealed a significant need for funding to support these types of projects in Baltimore City. While $25,000 was made available for the program from MHAA, BNHA received requests for funding that totaled over $80,000. The heritage area ended up pulling in additional funding from another source in order to award $27,945 total to seven important projects. Shauntee Daniels, Executive Director of BNHA underscored the importance of the Neighborhood Placemaking Grants, when she explained that “every neighborhood has a story.”

Community members celebrate one of Baltimore’s oldest neighborhoods at the Jonestown Festival, funded in part by a Neighborhood Placemaking Grant. Photo by Will Kirk, courtesy of the Jewish Museum of Maryland and Baltimore National Heritage Area

Daniels emphasized that many of the neighborhoods’ stories are centered around immigration: “All of these little enclaves of neighborhoods were brought together and built by people who came here as cultural groups.” She described how the area around the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore, known as Jonestown, is a good example of a neighborhood with an engaging story to tell, but – all-too-often – museum visitors pass right through the neighborhood itself. The Jewish Museum received a Neighborhood Placemaking Grant to help fund the annual Jonestown Festival in 2019, highlighting the neighborhood’s engaging history.

Another view of visitors enjoying the Jonestown Festival, funded in part by a Neighborhood Placemaking Grant. Photo by Will Kirk, courtesy of the Jewish Museum of Maryland and Baltimore National Heritage Area

The China Town Collective also received one of the inaugural Neighborhood Placemaking Grants to support their second-ever “Charm City Night Market.”  Steph Hsu of the Collective said, “The Charm City Night Market celebrates the cultural exchange of Asian Americans in Baltimore City…. Thanks to the funding from the Neighborhood Placemaking Grant we were able to expand our possibilities with signage, wayfinding, and lighting, which will include lanterns designed by a local entrepreneur.”

In addition to creating opportunities for visitors, the Neighborhood Placemaking Grants have encouraged collaborations within and between communities across the heritage area. Kim Lane, Executive Director of Pigtown Main Street in Baltimore, offered this insight: “We shared it [the Neighborhood Placemaking Grant opportunity] with our partners in our area, which resulted in conversations that lead to a group of community leaders from Pigtown Main Street, Pigtown, Barre Circle, Ridgely’s Delight and Camden Carroll forming a committee to plan a heritage walk.” 

This newly rebranded and reimagined mini-grant program builds on BNHA’s “Heritage Neighborhoods” goal, which calls on the heritage area to “assist visitor friendly neighborhoods offering heritage experiences” and specifically mentions “emerging heritage neighborhoods,” tasking BNHA with meeting neighborhoods where they are and supporting them in the early stages of becoming visitor-ready.

BNHA is currently accepting applications for this year’s round of Neighborhood Placemaking Grants. The deadline to apply is December 9. Read more about this opportunity on their website.

13 Grants-Related Things that Frighten Us and How MHT is Trying to Make the Process a Little Less Scary

By Ennis Barbery Smith, Maryland Heritage Areas Program Assistant Administrator

It’s October, and many of us working in the historic preservation and heritage tourism fields are offering our annual retellings of the spooky stories associated with the buildings we help steward. Some of us are leading ghost tours and hanging fake cobwebs from eaves. However, the “scary” thing that I’m writing about today is the grants process. It’s not “spooky” scary. It doesn’t go bump in the night, but it is frightening in other ways. Grants can keep us up at night, and by us, I mean both grant recipients and grants managers.

Here at MHT, we have some good news to share about how we’re trying to make the grant reporting process a little less frightening for everyone involved. But, before I get to that, if you’re unfamiliar with grants, you may be wondering “what could be frightening about grants?” I asked some of our grantees and grants managers to share their fears, and here’s a listing of some of their answers:

13 Grants-Related Things that Frighten Us:

  1. Grant Applicant / Recipients’ Fears:
    Writing an entire application thinking you understand the priorities of the funding organization, only to get a rejection letter detailing how you completely missed the mark

  2. Looking through a grant application to see how much time you need to complete it, allotting that time, then realizing later that the final step is five letters of support and the grant is due by close of business

  3. Forgetting your password for the grant portal on the day the grant is due

  4. Manipulating your project budget to fit into the form that has been provided in the grant application, and inadvertently leaving out an important expense in the process

  5. Answering what seems to be the same question on a grant application five times and struggling to make the answer sound different each time

  6. Finding out the grant is reimbursable when you were counting on money up front and your operating budget is tight

  7. Doing the math and finding out that the total money (i.e. staff time) you’ve spent writing grant reports and providing financial documentation is greater than your total grant award

  8. Finding out there are more strings attached to the grant award than you realized, such as being required to purchase a ticket to the funding organization’s event

  9. Grant Managers’ Fears:
    Finding out, in your grantee’s final report, that the entire project has changed without them telling you, and they’ve spent the grant money on expenses that your grant program can’t cover

  10. Finding out that the project contact has literally disappeared from the grantee organization and not told anyone else at the organization about the grant’s existence

  11. Realizing that a grantee who was awarded a historic preservation grant has inadvertently used the money to dismantle historic elements of the building

  12. Seeing that a grantee has not taken the time to fact check their interpretive sign at a historic site, but they have taken the time to include your organization’s logo prominently

  13. Realizing that – out of the hundreds of pages of financial documentation you’ve reviewed – only a few pages relate directly to the grant project

In summary, the grants process is fraught with things that frighten us. While MHT can’t control all of the scary circumstances listed here, we at MHT are making changes to some of the processes within our control: our financial documentation and grant amendment policies.

Those of you who have received grant funding from one of our programs in the past will probably recall scanning and uploading stacks of cancelled checks and invoices each time you requested a disbursement of your grant funding. Over the years, long before compiling this list, our grantees have been giving us feedback about how they sometimes felt they were spending more time documenting their grant spending than actually doing the important work directly related to their projects. During the series of public meetings that MHT held as part of the process of updating the Statewide Preservation Plan, PreserveMaryland II, our past and present grantees echoed these concerns.

We have listened to this feedback, and now we’re making changes:

  1. Less paper to scan and submit: Under our old policies, MHT required grantees to submit both “proof of expenditure” (invoices, receipts, etc.) and corresponding “proof of payment” (cancelled checks, credit card statements, etc.) for all expenses associated with their grant projects. Across all of our programs, we will no longer be requiring grantees to submit “proof of payment.”

  2. Streamlined amendments and extensions: We will now be processing most grant extensions and amendments via email. Grant extensions and amendments, when approved, allow grantees to make changes to the timetables, scopes of work, and budgets associated with their projects.

  3. For MHAA grants, a “spot-check” process: While all Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA) grantees must still retain financial documentation of grant-related expenses, only a portion of MHAA grantees will be required to scan and upload their financial documentation as part of their grant reporting. You can think of this as similar to the IRS’s tax-filing system in which the IRS only requires that a portion of audited tax-payers submit documentation for their tax claims.
The Maryland Heritage Areas Program orientations discussed the new policies in September.
Photo courtesy of Lucille Walker and the Southern Maryland Heritage Area

We hope that these changes—and other changes that are more program-specific—will mean that our grantees can complete their reporting requirements in less time and have more time to spend on their projects. The rollout of this new financial documentation policy looks different for each of our grant programs. Please contact the MHT staff person you’ve been working with if you have questions about how this might apply to your grant.

To our grantees, MHT thanks you for all the important projects you’re working on to steward Maryland’s heritage. This Halloween-season, may these changes lighten your workload a little, so you can focus on the important things, like getting that fog-machine in working order or curating the perfect collection of gourds, if you’re sticking with a more restrained autumnal style.

Thank you to the grantees and grants managers who contributed to the list of grant-related fears! If you enjoyed this Halloween-themed blog and you’ve worked in the non-profit world, you might also be interested in this description of a visit to a non-profit-themed haunted house – it’s truly terrifying.

Maryland Heritage Areas Program Highlighted as a Funding Source for Landscape-Scale Conservation

Maryland Heritage Areas Program Highlighted as a Funding Source for Landscape-Scale Conservation

By Ennis Barbery Smith, MHAA Assistant Administrator

When you think of “cultural resources” in Maryland, do you picture buildings and artifacts? And, when you read the phrase “natural resources,” what comes to mind? Perhaps a diamond back terrapin sunning itself in the marsh grasses?

These images are “zoomed in.” When we zoom out and use a landscape-scale perspective, thinking of any of the regions that make up Maryland’s 13 heritage areas for example, cultural and natural resources are intertwined. Historic Districts are often home to streams and dotted with trees. Agricultural landscapes — hemmed in by wetlands, rivers, and forests- – serve as stunning backdrops for nineteenth century barns and farm houses. On Maryland’s shores, in coastal and bay-side communities (like Tilghman Island, pictured below) cultural traditions, the economy, and the built environment are all closely tied with the surrounding land and water.

Phillips Wharf Environmental Center’s Oyster House on Tilghman Island serves as a working oyster house and a site for environmental education. It has benefited from Maryland Heritage Area Program grants.
Photo provided courtesy of Phillips Wharf Environmental Center

The Maryland Heritage Areas Program (MHAP) staff recently wrote a paper detailing examples of how the program uses a landscape-scale perspective to support a wide range of heritage tourism and education related grant projects: from hiking trails to museum exhibits, wetlands to web resources. Jennifer Ruffner presented the paper in November of 2018 at a symposium called Forward Together. The United States National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (US/ICOMOS) held the symposium, bringing together an international group of scholars and professionals to discuss the linkages between culture and nature in their work.

Jennifer Ruffner, MHAP Administrator, presenting the paper entitled Stewarding Places and Stories: Maryland Heritage Areas Program as Framework for Conservation

The symposium was held in San Francisco at the Presidio (pictured below), a former army post turned park that includes historic buildings, walking trails, and an unusually high number of rare and endangered plant species. MHAP staff were honored to attend the symposium — especially in this setting that illustrated how the cultural and natural are so often linked, rather distinct.

If you are interested in reading more about how the Maryland Heritage Areas Program supports landscape-scale heritage conservation, MHAP staff’s paper is now available online.

The Presidio’s Infantry Row
A view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Presidio

Maryland Heritage Areas Grant Helps Wye Mill Keep on Grindin’

By Ennis Barbery Smith, MHAA Assistant Administrator

Each year, the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA) provides grant funding to heritage tourism-related projects that preserve and celebrate important places across the state. As part of Preservation Month, the MHAA staff wanted to take the time to visit one of these fascinating places where preservation work is underway, and to take you — our blog readers — along with us on a photo-based virtual tour.

John Nizer, Gail Owings, and Otis pose in front of the Wye Grist Mill in Wye Mills, MD.

The place we chose to visit was the Wye Grist Mill, where we were greeted by the cast of characters above: John Nizer (Board President and volunteer extraordinaire for the Friends of Wye Mill), Gail Owings (Executive Director of the Stories of the Chesapeake Heritage Area), and Otis, a canine-heritage-tourism-enthusiast who you may recognize from his frequent appearances visiting historic buildings and landscapes on the Stories of the Chesapeake Heritage Area’s social media feed.

The Mill dates to 1682, and — with very minimal interruption — it has been grinding grain to produce flour ever since. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One of the Mill’s claims to fame, featured prominently in tours and signage, is that it (and many other mills on the Eastern Shore of Maryland) shipped flour to the Continental Army, commanded by General George Washington, during the American Revolution. Part of what makes the Wye Grist Mill so special is that it’s a rare survivor. Sadly, those “many other mills” that dotted the Eastern Shore during the American Revolution are nowhere to be found today.

But Wye Mill is still standing and still grinding. Visitors can still see the grindstones, the waterwheel, and all the other intricate inner workings in action on the first and third Saturdays of each month from May to the middle of November, when a trained miller is on site. Visitors may also purchase grain. I, the author, can attest that the cornmeal ground on-site is fabulous, and makes a mean cornbread.

When we arrived at the Mill on a cloudy Wednesday in early May, one of the first things that John Nizer showed us was a new door on the rear lower level of the building that had just been commissioned and installed as part of the MHAA grant project. The previous door was determined to be damaged beyond repair, and a new “beaded vertical plank exterior door with diagonal interior sheathing” was approved by the Maryland Historical Trust just this spring.

John was excited to show it off, not only because of the door’s period-specific details, but because of the people who made it. A local teacher at Queen Anne’s County High School, Ron Frederick, took on the special project with some of his best carpentry students. Even the nails on the door are handmade. Charles Euston, a blacksmith working in Woodbury, CT crafted all 175 of them. He also does blacksmith work for the National Park Service.

Illustrations used in exhibit at the Wye Grist Mill, showing Oliver Evans’ automated process for milling, which he patented with the U.S. Patent Office in 1790.

As John explained and as the Mill’s hand-painted illustrations convey, the building uses an automated system for grinding grain, which was invented by Oliver Evans in 1784. This system would have been installed at the Wye Grist Mill sometime in the late 18th century or early 19th century, according to the signage present on-site. It replaced a system that required much more manual labor.

Wye Grist Mill’s iron waterwheel, which will be inspected as part of the grant project

When the miller on duty is ready to get started grinding, he or she opens a small metal gate that allows water to flow onto the waterwheel from a nearby containment pond. The waterwheel then powers the automated mechanisms. A miller must start the milling process by pouring grain down into the door in the floor (shown below) that leads to the “grain spout.”

The door to the grain spout is shown here. It is simply a removable panel in the floor with a handle attached.

From the grain spout, the grain then goes up an elevator to the top floor and back down another chute into the hopper on the main floor.

John Nizer explained the process as he stood beside the hopper (right).

Inside the hopper, the grain filters down between the two millstones’ grooves, where the grinding happens. The two stones involved in this process are called the “runner stone,” the top stone weighing in at around 2,600 pounds, and the “bed stone,” located below and weighing about 1,800 pounds in comparison. The distance between the two stones can be adjusted by the miller and will depend on how fine or coarse the miller wants the resulting flour to be.

A view of the top of the runner stone inside the hopper

The millstones are turned by a system of belts and cogs located directly below them on the first floor. John explained to us, as he showed us the system (below), that some of the cogs are metal while others are wood. He asked us why this would be the case, and we were momentarily stumped. “Metal against metal produces sparks,” he said, explaining the fire risk potential.

This photo shows the cogs that help turn the millstones, and the bottom of the bed stone is visible near the top of the photo.

After being ground between the two stones, there is one more automated elevator ride to the top floor of the building, where the course outer layers of the grain and other impurities are removed. The grain then comes back down to the main floor and falls into the “meal bin” through a chute. At this point, the grain is now flour. The processes for cornmeal and grits are slightly different.

The meal bin, where flour arrives through the chute visible on the right

The best way to learn about this traditional — albeit automated — process and all the related history is to see the Mill in action, talk with a docent, and peruse its exhibits and hands-on activities. Just down the road from the Mill, there are other historic sites to explore:

Over the next year, the Friends of Wye Mill will continue to inspect and repair parts of their historic building and milling equipment with the help of millwright Gus Kiorpes (also the millwright for Mount Vernon). These repairs will be funded in part by the MHAA grant they received. We wish them and all of our grantees a merry Preservation Month and happy grant season!

Thanks for coming along on our virtual photo tour of the Wye Grist Mill.

Proposed Changes to the National Register Raise Concerns

By Elizabeth Hughes, Director of MHT and State Historic Preservation Officer

Nationwide, preservation organizations are sounding the alarm regarding the impact of proposed changes to the National Register of Historic Places Program. The Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) has grave concerns about the proposed changes and their effect on the future of Maryland’s heritage. The changes are not finalized yet, and there is an opportunity for MHT and others to express their views. The National Park Service (NPS)—the agency which oversees the regulations governing this program—is seeking public input through April 30.

Established by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Register of Historic Places is this country’s official list of places worthy of preservation. In Maryland alone, the National Register has 1,801 listings, including 255 historic districts, altogether comprising 108,523 contributing resources. Although inclusion in the National Register is largely honorific, this designation is the threshold for access to state and federal rehabilitation tax credits—a powerful tool for community revitalization. The National Register also plays an important role in ensuring that local communities have a voice when the federal government’s actions have the potential to impact historic resources. Federal agencies are required to consider the effects of their actions on National Register-listed or National Register-eligible properties and to engage with citizens concerned about the future of these non-renewable resources.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is an example of a federal agency that has embraced its historic property stewardship role.  This year, NIST will be receiving an award from Preservation Maryland in recognition of their exemplary preservation program at the agency’s Bethesda campus.

Among the various rule changes currently under consideration by NPS, one of greatest concern to MHT will provide federal agencies with unilateral and exclusive rights to nominate or refuse to nominate their properties to the National Register of Historic Places.  This change to the National Register nomination process extends not only to the listing of historic properties but also to the process of determining whether or not federally-owned properties are even eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The eligibility determination process is an essential step as agencies and state historic preservation offices, like the Maryland Historical Trust, work together to consider the effects of federal agency actions on historic properties through the Section 106 review process.  Federal agencies take the lead in developing determinations of eligibility (DOEs) for properties under their care.  DOEs are designed to be objective assessments of a property’s history and significance, uninfluenced by the nature or possible impacts of proposed projects. 

Under the current National Register regulations, this process is typically collaborative, resulting in “consensus determinations” between the federal agency and MHT.  Should a disagreement arise, the dispute is resolved by the Keeper of the National Register.  Regardless of the Keeper’s ultimate determination, federal agency projects still proceed.  The Section 106 process cannot stop federal agency undertakings from proceeding, it simply requires agencies to take into account the effects of their actions on historic properties.

Fort Howard, located in Baltimore County, was determined eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Owned by the Veterans Administration, plans for the redevelopment of the property are of significant interest to the local community.   This historic image, showing Fort Howard’s main hospital building and officer housing, is from the collection of the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society.

Under the proposed rule, it would now be possible for federal agencies to refuse to acknowledge the existence of historic properties in their care and, with impunity, carry out projects that may damage or destroy historic buildings, landscapes, and archeological resources under their control. The rule as proposed undermines the role of the state and the Keeper of the National Register as impartial arbiters of eligibility determinations. It also prevents local governments, tribes, and non-profit organizations from providing input on how federal agency actions may impact historic resources. Under this new scenario, there is no system of checks and balances on federal agencies who, in certain cases, have a vested interest in determining that no historic properties will be impacted by their actions. In this way, state and local communities are blocked from commenting on the impact of federal agency actions in our own backyard.

This proposed rule erodes the most basic principle undergirding the origin of the National Historic Preservation Act. Crafted in response to urban renewal and transportation projects of the 1950s and 1960s, which excluded local communities from deliberations about federal actions and resulted in large-scale demolition of historic resources, the Act sought to give states and local communities a voice in federal decision-making. By cutting states, local governments, tribes and non-profit organizations out of the process of determining whether properties may be eligible for listing on the National Register, the proposed rule subverts the intent of the National Historic Preservation Act.

To learn more about this proposed rule or to provide a comment, go to:

Comments are due to NPS by 11:59 p.m. EST on April 30, 2019.

MHAA Helps Fund New Exhibit Highlighting the Life Story of Reverend Josiah Henson

By Ennis Barbery Smith, Assistant Administrator, Maryland Heritage Area Program

The Reverend Josiah Henson’s legacy is one of resilience. He and his family escaped slavery in Maryland in 1830, heading north and eventually settling in Ontario, Canada. Once there, he founded a community for escaped slaves called the Dawn Settlement. While I only recently learned about Henson’s accomplishments and his connection to Maryland, it’s clear to me that the story of his life is worth sharing far and wide.

In high school, I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. I remember that my teacher credited this book with helping raise awareness about the brutalities of slavery and laying the groundwork for anti-slavery sentiment, which would propel the United States into the American Civil War. This novel, published in 1852, told the story of an enslaved man referred to as Uncle Tom whose journey begins in Kentucky. Over the course of the plot, he travels down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.

Informational panel on display at Josiah Henson Park in spring 2018. These more temporary exhibits will be replaced and greatly enhanced by the new exhibit and orientation film, partially funded by Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA).

As a high school student, I didn’t think to ask how Harriet Beecher Stowe—a white woman from Connecticut–knew about the brutalities of slavery. It turns out that she based many of the experiences she described in her famous novel on firsthand accounts by former slaves, including the autobiography of Josiah Henson, which was originally published in 1849.

Shirl Spicer (left), Museum Manager for Montgomery Parks, talks with (left to right) Janice Hayes-Williams of MHAA and Sarah Rogers, Executive Director of Heritage Montgomery.

Henson was born in Charles County, near Port Tobacco, and spent much of his childhood and early adulthood enslaved on the plantation of Isaac Riley in Montgomery County. The stories of enslavement that he shares in his dictated autobiography The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself are Maryland stories. His childhood was marked by the horrors that many enslaved people endured: violence, abuse, and family separation. As Henson shares in his narrative, Riley recognized him as very intelligent and delegated many responsibilities to him. Henson also became a reverend in the Methodist Episcopal Church. When he attempted to buy his freedom, Riley cheated him, and he feared being sold away from his family. This is where Henson’s story as a free man begins. He escaped slavery in Maryland, eventually settling in Canada with his family and establishing the Dawn Settlement.

Cassandra Michaud (left), Senior Archeologist for Montgomery Parks, shows MHAA representatives and Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) staff the archaeological excavation underway in spring 2018 at Josiah Henson Park, the site of the former Riley Plantation, where Henson was enslaved. MHAA representatives pictured include (left to right) Lee Towers and Janice Hayes-Williams. MHT staff pictured include Bernadette Pruitt (far right).

Today, Reverend Josiah Henson’s story of perseverance and courage is finally being etched into the Maryland landscape, and finding its way into the consciousness of Marylanders. The site in North Bethesda that used to be known as the Riley Plantation is now Josiah Henson Park, part of Montgomery Parks. In 2018, the Montgomery County Heritage Area expanded its boundaries, adding this site—and a host of others. As a result, the Montgomery County Parks Foundation applied for and was awarded a Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA) matching grant to design and install new exhibits at Josiah Henson Park’s on-site Visitor Center, currently under construction. The exhibit will feature an introductory film, original illustrations, and artifacts excavated at the Riley Plantation site. Shirl Spicer, Museum Manager for Montgomery Parks, said she is excited for people to see the exhibit because the artifacts paired with dynamic, evocative illustrations will allow visitors to engage with Henson’s story in new ways.

Even before the park re-opens with its new and enhanced visitor center and exhibits, Shirl Spicer assured me that her organization is actively spreading the word about Reverend Josiah Henson in Montgomery County through outreach at community events and schools. Plus, a brand new in-depth Josiah Henson biography was written by Montgomery Parks’ senior historian, Jamie Ferguson Kuhns, and published in February 2019.

Fran Kline, Archaeology Program Volunteer for Montgomery Parks, answers questions about artifacts uncovered at Josiah Henson Park.

Knowing what I know now about Henson’s remarkable life and autobiography, it feels like an injustice that I had never heard the name Josiah Henson before the Montgomery County Heritage Area submitted their boundary amendment materials to MHAA last year. However, just over the past year, I’ve started noticing his name in press coverage. In addition to Henson’s own autobiography, interested readers can learn more about Henson’s story here, watch video content about his life here, and watch an interview with his descendant here. All these sources are no substitute for visiting Josiah Henson Park itself. The Park and the new exhibits, funded in part by MHAA, are slated to open to the public in 2020.