Tom's Blog

by Tom Horton

“A good day to make scrapple,” proclaims Newell Quinton, improbably dapper in well-worn Carhartt coveralls and a brimmed hat. It’s two days ‘til Christmas. A hard frost glazed roofs as we turned the corner of San Domingo and Quinton roads, passed Quinton Hill Circle and bounced up the dirt lane to Newell’s little farm atop ‘Grandsarah’s Hill’, a sandy rise where his grandmother requested her future husband establish a homestead more than a century ago.

Newell, 76, and his cousin Keith Brown labor up from the basement with cast iron pots nearly big enough to bathe in, four in all. The pots predate both men, as does a hickory stirring paddle carved by his grandfather. San Domingo families always kept a hog, probably going back to the little African-American community’s founding two centuries ago (1820). In lean times it was something you could always sell, or eat, through the winter.

Late fall was hog butchering time as far back as Newell and Keith remember—families helping other families preparing a winter’s worth of food and lard. “It’s just a hobby now,” Newell says—but you learn it’s more than that, as the pungent odors and flavors of cooking pork swirl smokily through this short winter day. It’s part of what may be a last-ditch effort by the Quintons and other community elders to pass on the heritage of one of Maryland’s least known, unique cultures.

Newell explains this as the men who’ve gathered this morning lay oak firewood around the base of the big kettles, which are positioned atop tire rims to better transmit the heat. By 10.30 all four are at a frothing boil. One contains the organ meats from four hogs, another the hog heads. One’s plain water. A fourth brews the ‘liquor’, containing thick folds of hog hide and hog bones rich in flavorful marrow.

The butchering was done earlier and the ribs, hams, shoulder roasts and sausage all put away in coolers and freezers. “Scrapple” is the destiny of what’s left over, and they expect to end up with some 150 pounds by the time they finish adding salt, flour, cornmeal, sage and pepper both red and black. Like Newell, I grew up here on Maryland’s Eastern Shore assuming every family in America prized scrapple for breakfast, until we went off to college and found the word drew a blank with most folks. His youth and mine was a segregated time in most respects, almost like parallel universes. But not in regard to scrapple.

If ‘scrapple’ is a familiar name on the Delmarva Peninsula, San Domingo (Santo Domingo on some older maps) is not. English and Native American names are the norm. We have only tantalizing conjecture as to the origins of what is likely one of the oldest surviving Black settlements in the U.S. Its founder, James Brown, and the families that populated these sandy uplands and boggy creek bottoms in 1820 were free blacks. It was poor land “no one else wanted,” Newell’s mom once said.

Census records of that era list some of their occupations as “mariner”. That and the name, and stories passed down the generations lead current residents to believe they sailed up the Chesapeake Bay and the tidal Nanticoke River that flows near San Domingo from Haiti, where slaves had risen up and overthrown their French masters in a series of bloody rebellions that lasted from 1791 to 1804.

Santo Domingo was the name of the island that now contains the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the newly independent free black nation, first in the western hemisphere. Was San Domingo, here in the northwestern corner of Wicomico county, merely a nod to the founder’s homeland? Was it also something more ominous?

Certainly, the name in 1820 was not a neutral term. The success of the revolts in the Caribbean had shaken slave holding societies around the world, particularly in the United States. Some states like South Carolina banned official mention of Santo Domingo. It was a charged name—maybe chosen here as a warning, residents think, a small declaration of independence, a caution: ‘don’t tread on me’.

There would have been good reason. James Brown’s ‘freedom certificate’, issued in 1832, says he was 40 at the time, son of a “free woman of color”, and 5 feet, six and a quarter inches tall, of “chestnut complexion” (a widely used descriptive color prior to the blight that eliminated chestnuts from America’s forests in the early 20th century). That is virtually all we know of Brown, who bought land here, rented and sold parcels to other free blacks, and whose family deeded land for a church that remains a vital center of San Domingo. His grave, and that of his wife, Elizabeth, a free black woman from neighboring Dorchester county, stand alone in a forest outside of town amid mature red oaks and maples. They are unmarked, not on any map. Only a strand of blue baling twine Newell has tied to a tree shows you where to plunge through the greenbrier and push back through the forest for fifty yards or so.

Freedom was a relative term for Blacks in 1820. In 1808 the U.S. had finally banned the import of slaves from Africa, driving up the price of slave labor on southern plantations. By the 1820’s a ‘reverse’ Underground Railroad was thriving, the illegal but seldom punished kidnapping of thousands of free blacks, including children, who were sold into slavery. And a key cog in this horrific network was only a few miles from the newly-founded San Domingo, centered in present-day Reliance, MD. A notorious gang there, run by Joe Johnson and his wife, Martha ‘Patty’ Cannon, would not be broken up until the late 1820’s. Jailed in Delaware, Cannon took her own life in 1829.

Back in 2019 it’s beginning to smell like scrapple as the winter sun descends and the fires beneath the cast iron pots are banked to a simmer. Keith Brown has severed the tongue from one of the hog heads and offered around slices of the smoking, brown meat, pork in taste, delicious, but different from a chop or a roast. All day Keith has never taken off the headset he wears and periodically talks into, giving instructions to ‘go there’, ‘no, don’t take it yet. . . wait for (the police?). He’s in the “removal business,” he explains. When someone dies, when there’s a traffic fatality, someone has to pick up and move the body to the funeral home, the morgue. . . that’s Keith. It dawns on me: those are his vaults down the road from Newell?  Yes, he sells caskets, digs graves, got it all covered.

The organs and the flesh from the heads and from the marrow bones have all been carved and scraped and run through an electric meat grinder; then returned to the liquor pot, which Newell stirs as he and Keith add fistfuls of corn meal and flour, thickening the soupy mixture, taste-testing, debating, adding more salt, more pepper, more sage. Newell is mindful of his mother’s instructions that the flavors will “set”, i.e. get stronger after the scrapple’s done. He stirs and stirs, getting harder now to move the ancient wooden paddle, frayed on the edges from generations of use. When the paddle stands upright on its own, the scrapple is done. “Time to pan it up,” Newell’s sister, Alma Hackett pronounces; and the men ladle it out into three pound, rectangular aluminum pans. I took some with me and made a memorable Christmas morning breakfast.

However fraught were the origins of its name, San Domingo for most of its long history appears to have managed a low profile and peaceful coexistence with the surrounding dominant white culture. Its people farmed and fished and timbered, hunted coon and possum and rabbits, worked in factories in nearby Sharptown—where it was understood “you’d be out of town before the sun set,” said Rudolph Stanley, another of Newell’s many cousins. Two stores operated there, and the community of several hundred—it never incorporated—was a center of black society on the rural Delmarva Peninsula, drawing visitors from smaller places like Nebo, just across the Delaware line.

One tragedy: the old church burned in 1979, and though it was a time of black church burnings around the country, there was no evidence of arson. A white preacher from Sharptown led the recovery and rebuilding of the brick church and fellowship hall that stands today.

I grew up in the 1950’s and ‘60’s in Federalsburg on a branch of the Nanticoke river. It was only 12 miles from San Domingo, and I thought I knew every hamlet and village around; but San Domingo, which is not on a main road to anywhere, was a blank space on my map. It would be 40 years later before I encountered it, when I was building a house a couple miles away and went exploring on my bicycle. Two things stood out: the kids playing in the street smiled warmly and spoke easily to me—something not always expected in Baltimore, where I’d been living for 20 years.

And there was this mysterious old building in an abandoned field next to a big oak. Its original wood siding was clad with shabby looking aluminum siding, and plywood was nailed over what looked like remarkable windows covering one whole side. Clearly it had been something in its day, this imposing structure amid little, ramshackle San Domingo.

Fast forward a dozen more years and I’m seated inside the old building with a dozen friends, receiving an extraordinary education. We listen raptly from our student desks to Newell as he holds forth at the head of the sunlit classroom that educated the eight Quinton siblings. Seven of them would go on to Morgan State University and to exceptional careers. Another went to the Maryland School for the Deaf. The building, now restored by the community with the help of state and federal grants, is a Rosenwald School, on the National Register of Historic Places. More than 5,000 were built in African American communities throughout the South during the first few decades of the 20th century, a collaboration between philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and educator Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute. Communities were required to donate money and labor to qualify for a school. An estimated 12-15 per cent of the buildings still survive.

The San Domingo school, which operated from 1919 until integration ended its role in 1957, was one of two pillars for the Quintons and other families: education and property: “Never sell the land,” Newell says his father made his children promise. Their parents were only able to go to fourth grade, in a long-vanished school on the same site, Newell said. But they were determined to see better for their eight children, despite limited means.

School attendance was mandatory, no matter the weather, and if a student did not do their homework, the whole class suffered. From a small stage built into the second-floor classrooms, Newell can still recite Robert Frost and the Gettysburg Address as if it were sixty years ago.

Also taught was the history of Toussaint Louverture, the slave who became a general and began the revolts that established the free nation of Haiti. That was decidedly not part of the curriculum in Federalsburg, or most likely in any other whites-only school in the region.

Architecture students at Tuskegee Institute designed the schools. Desks were oriented east to west, so that natural light streaming through the big, south-facing windows (54 windows in all) illuminated students’ writing hands. It remains in use today as a community and cultural center; also meeting place for the local Masonic Lodge.

In making our film on San Domingo, the old school has seemed a natural place for residents to teach Dave Harp, Sandy Cannon Brown and me about the importance of their unique community. Alma, Newell’s sister, who taught biology in Eastern Shore high schools for a career, told us of another sister who decided college was not to her liking. Their mother promptly arranged for her to spend the summer working the eviscerating line in a local poultry plant, after which college looked a lot better.

Their schooling in San Domingo, and after that at segregated high school in Salisbury, prepared black students well for college, Alma said. But nothing prepared her and her sister, Barbara (now a medical doctor) for the early 1960’s at Morgan State. Against the wishes of both their father and Morgan’s president, they joined a protest in 1963 of the movie theater in Northwood, the white neighborhood bordering the college. “Those folks had the run of campus facilities and we could not go to their movie,” Alma said.

The sisters were thrown in jail in Baltimore, bail set impossibly high given their family’s limited means. They were strip searched, sprayed for lice, “the whole works,” Alma’s son, David, recalls. Alma said she shared a cell with a convicted murderer. “She asked, ‘what are you in here for?’”. I said for trying to get into the movies. “Oh, they put you in jail for that, now?”

After three days they were ‘sprung’ from jail through friendships they had formed with women students at Goucher, a nearby and expensive private school. “When they found out, they told us, ‘we’re going to talk to our daddies. . . this is not right’; and then we were let go,” says Alma, adding, “nice to have connections, you know?”  More than half a century later, Morgan recognized the Quinton sisters and other protestors as Civil Rights Pioneers, with honorary PhD’s.

Times have changed Alma knows, since she and Newell were kids; often in good ways like integration and economic opportunity. Yet they marvel at the closeness, the strong values of self-reliance and making do so well with so little, and helping anyone in need, all values that marked that earlier era of San Domingo.

The family several years ago decided it was time to start giving back. They established the John Quinton Foundation, initially a scholarship fund for local kids going to college. More recently the foundation’s mission has morphed into trying to stem the decline of San Domingo, and the loss of values it represented; “and that hasn’t been easy,” Alma says.

On a February evening in 2020, red maples already beginning to bud, bald eagles on their nests along the Nanticoke, several dozen residents, young and old, gather at the church’s fellowship hall for “Feast or Famine.” Traditionally it is a dinner where two meals are served: one, heavy on beans, to show the youth how people ate back in harder times; the other a repast of fried chicken and all the trimmings. Tonight, everyone eats good. There’s serious business to discuss.

An older lady speaks: “the San Domingo I grew up in was a self-supporting community, owned our land, owned our homes, knew our neighbors. That is what I grew up in.

“Now, I drive through here and say, who lives there? ‘I don’t know’; or some white person bought it at a tax sale. How’d that happen? That’s a loss of neighborhood.”

Newell rises: “it’s not about keeping San Domingo a black community. . . times have changed and with (integration) came greater mobility. It’s about how we keep values. . . keep the land. Give us your ideas.”

“Three priorities as I see it,” says Jamad Gould, 28. Born and raised here, he dreams of reassembling and rehabilitating his family’s properties and dwellings and moving back from Salisbury.

The community has to remember its history, the significance of San Domingo. There has to be more advocacy and education for financial literacy, more help for people to hold onto property. “And we have to learn to farm again if we want a sustainable community. . . to keep the community’s money in the community.”

“Money, money, money,” says Wyzhir Johnson, 24, who grew up in the center of San Domingo, close by the old school. “The community doesn’t have (money). . . the only generational wealth is in the land. How do we keep it in the family?”

A woman stands up. She grew up in Nebo, just across the Maryland-Delaware line from San Domingo. There’s not much left of once flourishing Nebo. One of the last big chunks of land there recently sold to a developer. “It’s a suburb now, called Heritage Acres or something like that.”

No easy answers to all the above, and maybe not a lot of time to figure them out, looking at the average age of the assemblage.