The descendants of the free Black men and women who founded San Domingo share its history
(Tribune News Service) — It’s a sunny late afternoon on Gran’Sarah’s Hill, Newell Quinton’s 40-acre spread in a wooded corner of northwestern Wicomico County, and the lanky 77-year-old is in his element.
His 50 goats scurry and bleat as he walks among them, tossing out feed. His female hogs, Laverne and Shirley, nestle in a pen, each pregnant with a litter of piglets.
He’ll sell the goats and butcher or market the hogs when the time comes, making use of every cubic inch of living inventory just as people have done in the remote community of San Domingo, Maryland, for more than two centuries.
“We’ve never wasted much of anything here,” he says cheerfully. “It’s one of the values that has kept us going.”
Quinton is a native son and ongoing champion of San Domingo, an enclave of a few hundred mostly African American residents just inland from the Nanticoke River on the Eastern Shore.
Established as a settlement of free Black men and women in the early 1800s, it’s believed to be the first and oldest such community in the state, but that’s not all that makes this out-of-the-way place unique.
In a place and at a time when the slave trade was at its strongest, and when most Black people classified as free lived on property owned by others, San Domingo’s founders owned and tended land, set up businesses, built a church and a school, raised families, and generally created a close-knit, thrifty and self-sufficient community that coexisted peacefully with the white towns around them well into the mid-1900s.
When Quinton works Gran’Sarah’s Hill, he says he’s not just earning a living. He’s carrying on a way of life that made the community possible for all those years, right into his childhood.
He pauses and leans on the hog-pen fence.
“Not everyone was lucky enough to grow up the way we did, and we’d like to keep those values alive,” he says.
Free Black pioneers
It has been said that San Domingo, a census-designated place between Mardela Springs and Sharptown near the Delaware line, isn’t on the main road to anywhere, and a two-hour drive from Baltimore bears out the idea.
Cross the Bay Bridge, head south through Caroline and Dorchester counties, hit the successively smaller towns of Federalsburg, Eldorado and Sharptown, and you’re in the neighborhood.
You may spot a lone sign — Welcome to San Domingo: A Community of Free Black Pioneers — that residents put up in recent years. From there, a byway curves to its central gathering place.
Quinton and two contemporaries are already at the San Domingo Community and Cultural Center, a two-story frame building that once served as the area’s “colored school,” and ready to talk their hometown.
Told it was a little hard to find, they all burst out laughing.
“Oh, San Domingo was designed that way,” says Rudolph Stanley, 72, a retired math teacher who has been conducting genealogy research on his birthplace since 1999. “It can be tricky if you don’t have good reason to be here.”
And he, Quinton and Quinton’s older sister, Alma Hackett, 78, launch into tales about growing up in a place where you had to know every creek and clearing just to get from one place to another.
No one knows for sure exactly how and why San Domingo first came into being, but U.S. census records from the early 19th century offer tantalizing clues.
They suggest, for one thing, that no free Black people lived in the area as of 1810 but that more than 600 had settled there in 109 households by 1820. Residents were listed as having a range of occupations, from grocer and carpenter to shipwright and pastor. Several owned acres in the hundreds.
Historian Mary Klein was astonished to stumble on that information in the early 1990s while conducting research on the lives of free Black residents of the Eastern Shore for her master’s degree thesis.
It was remarkable, she says, not just to see a community of free Black people on the plantation-rich Eastern Shore nearly half a century before the Civil War, but to realize it came together so rapidly and intentionally.
“You could see they had gathered together on purpose to form this large community, and it became this very successful, largely self-sustaining venture,” says Klein, now an archivist with the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. “I’ve researched communities all over the state, and I’ve never come across anything like it, especially that early.”
Her efforts led to “These Roots Were Free,” a 36-page book that remains the only academic study of San Domingo. But a handful of people who grew up there have long worked to paint a fuller picture.
Research into church records and family trees by Stanley and by Eubert G. Brown, a retired Air Force officer, confirms that a James Brown who is listed as a mariner in the 1820 census was its founder.
Brown’s children and grandchildren became community pillars, and his descendants — including Eubert, 85, his great-great-grandson — have proliferated alongside a few other families, the Stanleys included, ever since.
Many residents believe James Brown and others first came to the area by boat in the aftermath of a notoriously bloody slave revolt that took place in Santo Domingo, Haiti, around 1800, and named the community as a nod to that uprising.
Eubert disputes that — he believes the founder was a different James Brown, a free Black man born in Somerset County — but he agrees with most that the name was chosen as a tacit warning to “intrusive whites,” as he puts it.
“We feel the community avoided trouble out of fear of the name,” Brown says.
True or not, it’s clear the community prioritized keeping a low profile, a fact Quinton is sure helped foster the tranquility it enjoyed right into the 1960s in a region not known for its solicitude toward African Americans.
Though many San Domingans worked in nearby white communities — Quinton’s mother did “day work” in family homes in Sharptown, for example, and Stanley was a part-timer at a packaging plant there — their lives overwhelmingly centered on supporting and taking care of one another.
Someone was available to provide just about every important skill, Quinton says, whether it was delivering babies, digging wells or helping hogs through the mating process.
Eubert Brown’s grandfather, Hargus, couldn’t read or write, but he built sturdy houses, crafted headstones and used a dowsing stick to find water. Stanley’s dad, Rudolph Abraham Lincoln Stanley, owned the trucks that carried many to work, and Quinton’s father, George Bernard Quinton, raised soybeans and felled trees for firewood.
Brown recalls a group of ladies who moved from house to house, making quilts for families for the winter. Quinton remembers that someone always seemed to be preparing to harvest a hog in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. Everyone would head over to help, he says, and youngsters would learn how to use every part of the animal, from the ears and tail to the innards for sausage.
“The whole community had that independent spirit, helping each other to be successful,” he says.
San Domingo was so self-reliant, Quinton and others say, that growing up in the 1940s and 1950s they had little experience with the Jim Crow realities that prevailed just beyond its borders. Children heard almost nothing.
Ask about their childhoods and each becomes a griot.
Hackett remembers the “Sharptown Colored Elementary School” as a place with classrooms full of children, caring teachers who lived in the community, and May Day galas that brought out the girls’ finest dresses. It was in San Domingo, but served surrounding areas, too.
The school was the local version of the Rosenwald Schools built for Black children across the South in the early 1900s — facilities made necessary by segregation. But Hackett says the children had no clue about such things.
“Everyone there was totally committed to us succeeding,” says Hackett, who attended the school from 1948 to 1954, three years before it closed as part of desegregation. “We were blessed to go there.”
Church, too, was central. Nearly everyone attended services for hours each Sunday at New Zion United Methodist, and the building hosted community dinners, emergency meetings, even raccoon and squirrel hunts. Stanley remembers hundreds of children from other Black communities attended “rousing” weeklong camp meetings there every August.
Quinton’s great-uncle Norman T. Brown, a school bus driver, also ran the town’s general store, where he peddled everything from coal oil to wheels of cheese, often extending credit.
Quinton worked there when he was 13. “If Uncle Norm had to leave me in charge, he’d say, ‘Give ‘em what they want and put ‘em on the book, they’ll settle up Friday,’” he recalls. “If they had no money Friday, they’d come in with some eggs or potatoes and say, ‘Will this take care of it?’
“It always did. I never, ever saw a disagreement,” he says.
Teaching value and character
The children of Quinton’s generation became successful in life, he and others say. They cite the long hours they spent working nearby farms each summer — which taught them what they didn’t want to do — and the way their parents pushed them to get educated.
Most graduated from Salisbury High School, the county’s all-Black high school nearly 20 miles away. Quinton, his seven siblings and Stanley all went on to graduate from what is now Morgan State University.
Quinton joined the Army and turned the experience into a four-decade career with the federal government. One sister, Barbara, became a doctor. Stanley had a 42-year career teaching math in the Wicomico County schools, and Hackett taught biology and chemistry for 38 years in Somerset County.
Once segregation ended, San Domingo’s young adults began leaving the area in search of greater opportunity. Many sold inherited land. Some houses were razed or abandoned. But some old-timers, like Stanley, never left the area for long; others, like Quinton, returned decades later.
Today Quinton leads an effort to preserve San Domingo and share its story. The John Quinton Foundation, a nonprofit he and Barbara established (and named after their great-grandfather), got the Rosenwald School restored in 2004, reopened the building as a community center in 2014 and continue to use it, among other things, as headquarters for an annual Founders Day gathering each April that has drawn crowds as big as 200 for lectures and historical reenactments.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced its cancellation for two straight years, but Quinton is planning to host one in 2022. Donations to the nonprofit help underwrite that effort or can be directed toward scholarships and life-skills tutorials for local youths.
“Everything we do is to continue teaching the value and character we believe our founders and grandparents instilled in us so that younger people can benefit from the same things we originated from,” he says.
Gran’Sarah’s Hill, meanwhile, is a living testament to those values. It’s named after Quinton’s great-grandmother Sarah, the granddaughter of community founder James Brown, and was one of his favorite places to play as a boy.
He plans to slaughter two or three of his hogs this year and use the meat for pork loin, sausages, scrapple and more. And one day this November, he and a few other residents will follow a more recent tradition: offering the food to whatever friends and neighbors decide to drop by.
For Quinton, San Domingo is worth sharing.
“It had virtues that should not be lost,” he says. “We want to make sure people remember what created this community we love.”
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