New Oxford museum celebrates Maryland’s founding Black families “
It’s sharing a really interesting history that is presented in a dignified way that honors the ancestors of the founding Black families ...” Barbara Paca
Twenty years ago, Barbara Paca, an architectural designer, author, and curator, decided she would open the first museum on the Eastern Shore that celebrates the history and culture of the founding Black families in Maryland.
Paca knew that the stories of these historic families were largely unrecognized at the time — even though the Shore is home to some
of the oldest free Black communities in the country and hosts some of the most historic Black lineages.
“I realized that there was really a need and that no one was doing anything,” she said. “It’s not about anything more than, how could you miss that opportunity?”
After collecting for two decades, Paca finally opened Water’s Edge Museum in February at 101 Mill Street in Oxford. Inside the Water’s Edge are 170 historic paintings, as well as various lithographs, books, artifacts and furniture — all original works and items representing the founding Black families of Maryland. The museum pieces are portraits; pictures of traditional homes and the families’ work on the Bay; and grand representations of their life and culture.
The museum itself is mostly one large room — each of the four walls are decorated neatly with paintings — with a historic wood stove and a desk full of African-American literature. But nearby is also a folio with additional paintings, maps, written notes, letters, pictures and drawings, and paintings can be viewed almost everywhere in the building.
“It’s an incredible history that we realized 20 years ago we needed to get down,” Paca said. “It’s sharing a really interesting history that is presented in a dignified way that honors the ancestors of the founding Black families that are still living here, or family members that moved away but have roots here . ... It’s obviously the first of its kind in Talbot County and it’s the first to celebrate these Black families.”
The Water’s Edge received an honorific citation from U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. And when it hosted a virtual grand opening in early February, guest speakers included Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford and First Lady Yumi Hogan.
“Water’s Edge Museum is very important because it presents the arts, history and culture of African-Americans in the state,” Hogan said. “You will learn about the founding Black families of America. Their contributions to Maryland are truly appreciated and left incredible legacies for future generations.”
Rutherford said the museum “shares the empowering story and spiritual beliefs of the founding Black families of Maryland.”
“I have hiked, canoed and toured through much of this area in order to gain a better understanding of Maryland’s astounding history,” he said. “The Water’s Edge Museum is interesting to me because it features a portrait of people of African descent against the maritime backdrop of the Chesapeake Bay.”
Water’s Edge not only presents a spotlight on Maryland’s Black families — the Moaney-Henrys, the Alburys, the Robesons — but its context is enlightening for many descendants because of how these specific, historical families overcame slavery and forged unique identities and cultures on The Shore.
The museum introduces these families as pioneers who “in spite of pervasive racial injustice ... forged ahead to stake a claim in the America that needed them, but continued to refuse to acknowledge them for their crucial role. At least until now.”
Jeffery Moaney, a descendant of the historic Moaney-Henry family, said in a Facebook video how proud he was to learn about the trials and tribulations of his family and their strength in overcoming slavery.
“As an individual, they were thought of as property but they fought for their freedom,” he said. “Those sacrifices were made for me to be able to be here and have the life that I have.”
Artwork at the museum, most of which are over
100 years old, also include powerful interpretations of religion and Black culture. The humongous 1940 painting “Pharaoh’s army got drownded,” compares the biblical story of Moses leading his people to freedom from oppression in ancient Egypt to a similar plight of the African-American experience in the United States.
“The old ark’s a’moverin (and I’m going home),” a
1938 painting, is the artist’s modernization of the biblical Noah’s Ark tale, presented as an AfricanAmerican’s journey to freedom. And “Ezekiel saw the wheel” celebrates Black spirituality.
“Many of Maryland’s founding African-American families led their lives at the water’s edge on the Eastern Shore,” begins the online tour. “Presenting the Founding Black Families of America as a portrait of a people on the Eastern Shore, the Water’s Edge Museum offers a first look at the invaluable role played by people of color through their loyalty, devotion, and bedrock spiritual foundation . ... Through art and culture, The Water’s Edge presents an uplifting story of a people who tended to be relegated to the caste of the invisible.”
The Museum’s founder, Paca, sees this museum as a first step toward her dream of celebrating The Shore’s Black culture at large. And Paca, who owns Preservation Green, a national landscape design and development company focused on green initiatives, is a giant in the national community who likes to get things done.
She’s the only landscape architectural designer in the U.S. to be honored as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire from the Queen of England. Paca also serves as a trustee to the Maryland Historic Trust and as a commissioner to the Maryland Commission on African-American History and Culture. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and wrote a popular book about Ruth Starr Rose, who is famous for her paintings of African-American life in the 20th Century.
But the Water’s Edge is a longtime project and dream of Paca’s, even if it’s just the latest in a long line of accomplishments. To Paca, teaching people about the Black families that have defined America is “uplifting and a way to empower (African-Americans) and help them find a voice.”
But it’s even more empowering for the 10 or so families on The Shore who worked closely with Paca in establishing Water’s Edge.
These families provided documents, paintings, artifacts and more for the museum, and Paca says she’s in debt to their assistance, as well as numerous other collectors and historical families that contributed to the museum. Some of them have passed away and never lived to see the museum open.
“There would be no museum if it wasn’t for the families of color who supported us. We managed to gather a lot of information from people who have gone on, and we wish they could be here to see it now,” Paca said. “But they are here in spirit.”
George and Paulette Albury’s family has historic ties to Oxford. The couple helped contribute items such as the 1930s blackand-white photograph of Downes and Albert Curtis’s historic sailmaker’s loft on Tilghman Street in Oxford.
George Albury said his children were inspired by the museum and its “importance” in telling the stories of their family and others in the area.
Annie Miller, the director of education, said one founding Black family descendant, Candace Henry, was so moved by the artwork from her family that she teared up.
“It was seeing her ancestors depicted in this proud, handsome, strong way, that was eye-opening to her,” Miller said. “She knew her ancestors were slaves. She was looking here and saying that if she needs to overcome something, she’s been gifted this strength, this power, from her descendants. The way she said it was really powerful.”
The Moaney-Henry family, which has various portraits and paintings of their family at Water’s Edge, have used the museum to instruct the youngest member of the family, Garnell Henry III, about his family lineage.
“I am so thrilled that my sons and daughterin-law (were) able to visit the Water’s Edge Museum and learn more about our family’s history,” Brenda Moaney-Henry wrote on a Facebook post after visiting. “It makes me very proud to know they are going to be part of this wonderful, historical process.”
Members of some the founding Black families also hold leadership positions at Water’s Edge. Jeffery Moaney is the director of founding black family genealogy and histories, and Candace Henry is the director of educational planning and tours.
Tourists are encouraged to navigate to the Water’s Edge Museum website to read about these families and the history behind the artwork. But there are no panels, because Paca does not want to overwhelm viewers. She said the museum is empowering because “the best way to share history with people is through music, visual arts and culture.”
“We just let the art speak for itself,” she said.
In-person visits are open by appointment only and virtual tours are also available on the museum’s website. Once the pandemic is over, however, Paca plans to ramp up tours and have the founding Black families become tour guides for the museum.
Water’s Edge is also providing an online platform for visitors who can now listen to traditional African-American songs from modern artists — songs that were once sung on plantations or by Black families.
The Maryland Spirituals Initiative, an intergenerational choir, resurrects these songs — like “Keep Your Hand on the Plow” — as well as classics such as “Amazing Grace” in African-American renditions. Lyrics to the traditional songs are also posted online.
Music is a surprisingly huge component of Water’s Edge. Paca even plans to reactive the Water’s Church in Oxford as a venue for future tours, giving visitors a fullblown cultural experience.
Kentavius Jones, a local musician, is the director of outreach and special events at the museum and one of the main performers with the Maryland Spirituals Initiative. Jones said there’s at least six historical songs right now that he and Paca have recorded.
“The aim is to bring the songs to life,” he said, and “educate students and people about the importance of them both spiritually and historically.”
Jones has his own studio at the top floor of the museum, where he records his songs. Jones said he’s grateful for Paca’s initiative to educate people in a time when many Black people still experience oppression in the United States.
“We’re in a time period where education about the Black experience is necessary,” he said, and Paca helped “develop a place for us to start the conversation.”
By July 4, Water’s Edge Museum will also have a sign outside the building for passersby to easily view.
Paca will erect a 42
inch-by-36-inch sign on the grounds of the museum, which will denote the Middle Passage, a slave route, and its ties to Maryland. One of those routes ended in Oxford, and ships brought slaves there until Aug. 11, 1772. The last intra-American ship landed on July 4 of
1722, so Paca wants to have the sign up by then.
Paca said the story of that slave route in Oxford has not yet been told in a historical and contextual way. She’s working with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project, an organization working to create a more formal history of the slave trade.
“It’s going to be a wonderful opportunity to educate visitors, and people in Oxford, about what the Middle Passage was,” Paca said.
The sign will be twosided and feature a historical map of the Middle Passage slave route into the Chesapeake Bay and then Oxford.
The sign is another addition to the museum’s collection, which continues to grow. Paca began this collection a long time ago, but Water’s Edge Museum is, in many ways, a work in progress. There’s more work to find, more stories to tell. But more than 20 years ago, The Shore had absolutely nothing like this.
“My dream has always been to make the Eastern Shore a world heritage site,” Paca said — and now she’s gotten one step closer.