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African American History on Maryland’s Coast

African American History on Maryland’s Coast

Worcester County on Maryland’s Coast is filled with rich African American history. Even on a vacation, there’s always time to learn about the historical significance of the buildings you pass by and the land that you’re walking on. 

The African American community in Worcester County has helped to shape the beautiful coast we now know with cultural traditions, and impactful service of local, state, and national prominence. As we dive into the complex history of the African American experience on the Eastern Shore, we aim to highlight historical buildings and representations around the county where you can learn more about the cultural fabric of our region. 

Henry Hotel

Henry Hotel in Ocean City was built around 1895 and was bought by Charles T. and Louis Henry in December of 1926. The three-story building has close to 20 rooms and provided full-service accommodations for African American tourists and entertainers. Famous musicians like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, and Louis Armstrong stayed at Henry Hotel when they would perform in town.

During these times, much like the rest of the country, Ocean City was strictly segregated, only allowing people of color to stay in certain places and visit during periods called “Colored Excursion Days,” which occurred after the main summer season. Henry Hotel no longer accepts guests but remains intact, unmoved, and unaltered from its original structure.

Sturgis One Room School Museum

The Sturgis One Room School Museum is located in Pocomoke City, built 100 years ago originally on Brantley Rd. The museum was once the Sturgis School, the only one-room African American school in the county. The school was in operation from 1900 to 1937 where students from grades 1 to 7 were taught by a single teacher.

After 1937, the students were transferred to Stephen Long School in Pocomoke City, and William Sturgis moved in for several years. When he left the building, it was unattended until 1996 when people in the local community worked with the Worcester County Historical Society to purchase the school, move it to its current location, and renovate it into a museum to preserve its rich history.

Isaiah Fassett

Isaiah Fassett was born in Sinepuxtent, Maryland between West Ocean City and Berlin on March 17, 1844. He was born a slave to the Bruff family and was forced to work on the plantation until he was nineteen. Then, the Union army began searching for men to recruit and fight in the Civil War. Isaiah Fassett’s owner Sarah Bruff signed his release in exchange for $300 and Fassett became a Union soldier in the 9th United States Colored Troops. 

Fassett was a dedicated soldier and reached the rank of Corporal before his service was over. After over three years of service, he decided not to reenlist and returned home to Delmarva where he married and started a family of eight with Sallie Purnell in Berlin. He was an active part of the community, contributing to his church, growing his own vegetables in a victory garden during WWII, and proudly wearing his uniform during the annual Memorial Day parades. 

He was lovingly given the nickname Uncle Zear by the community and outlived all the Civil War veterans at the Grand Army of the Republic Post 51 in Berlin and then the last G.A.R post in Delaware. Isaiah Fassett passed away June 24, 1946, at the age of 102. A plaque for Cpl. Fassett is displayed on a marker on Branch Street and the Calvin B. Taylor Museum in Berlin has a display dedicated to him.

Reverend Dr. Charles Albert Tindley

Rev. Dr. Charles Albert Tindley is one of Worcester County MD’s most famous natives. He was born in Berlin around 1855. Although he grew up around slaves, his mother was free when he was born, giving Tindley his freedom as well. He was never allowed to go to school but worked diligently on his own and with tutors to become educated, learn about ministry, and overcome poverty.

Eventually, Tindley moved to Philadelphia and founded one of the largest African American Methodist congregations in the area. He is a famous songwriter and gospel music composer who wrote many hymns still used and recognized today. His works include the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, “We Shall Overcome”, as well as “Stand By Me” which was made famous by Ben E. King’s rendition. Tindley’s “Songs of Paradise” hymnal is still used in Worcester County today.

Samuel Robert Bowen Boulevard 

Samuel Robert Bowen has a Berlin road dedicated in his memory. Bowen was born in 1965 and grew up in the Berlin community. He graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 1983 and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1987. He was passionate about the culinary arts and pursued becoming a chef after his time in the military was up. When he enlisted in the U.S. Army National Guard in 1999, his unit was activated and deployed to Iraq in February of 2004. 

During his time overseas, he received a bronze star for his act of heroism after carrying his comrade to safety when he was thrown to the ground by an explosion. 

Only a month later, a rocket-propelled grenade landed by the humvee he was driving and Bowen was fatally wounded. He was the 1,000th soldier to die in that conflict and was promoted to Private First Class as well as awarded the Purple Heart Medal, and several other awards. PFC Samuel Robert Bowen is survived by his three children, sisters, family, and friends. On Memorial Day, May 27, 2013, the Samuel Bowen Boulevard was dedicated in his honor.

Briddletown

Have you heard of Briddletown? The town consists of the acreage northeast of Berlin by the crossing now known as Kitts Branch. The land was originally bought in 1866 with 2 and a half acres of Mill Haven Pasture purchased by former free black man Benjamin Pitts. Eventually, the small areas of land nearby continued to be purchased and gathered by ex-slaves and former free black families as the area grew in size. The community could earn a living, raise livestock, and grow gardens to support themselves. Around the same time, the congregation of St. Paul’s M. E. Church was emerging and growing with residents able to walk to the weekly services.

Throughout the later 19th century, more than 160 men, women, and children made up the community that became known as Briddletown. The name was likely inspired by the prominent Briddell family members in the town. Briddletown’s population peaked during the early 1900s before the Great Depression which resulted in many residents leaving the area to seek work. 

In 1910, the U.S. Census had the first documented mention of “Brittletown Road” in the street column of the census page. As of 2018, descendants of the original families who settled in the area still own the community’s land.


To discover more about the history of Maryland’s Coast, visit our local museums and check out our stories for adventures on the Coast!