For years, I’d seen the picture of the old stone blacksmith shop owned by Remus Adams, but only recently did I learn a bit of the story of the remarkable man who owned the business that once stood on the main street of Catonsville.The picture is old and grainy, which is not surprising. The shop was torn down well over a hundred years ago to make room for a new school. Now, of course, that school is old, and some people want to tear it down, too. But that’s another story.
The blacksmith who owned and ran the shop at 615 Frederick Road would not have been able to send his children or grandchildren to that school because he was African-American, and the new school would only be open to white children.
According to census records, Remus Adams was born in Maryland in 1826. At that time, Maryland was a slave state, and although his family was free, that status was not always secure in the days before the end of the Civil War. For instance, if a black man emigrated to the state in the 1850s, the law gave him just ten days to find a job or else he could be impressed into slavery.
Nevertheless, his family did well, at least as far back as 1773, when his grandfather was advertising his courier business in the Maryland Journal. By the middle of the 19th Century, the family held a prosperous blacksmith business that was passed down from his father to Remus and his brothers. His brothers moved onto other interests, leaving Remus as the sole owner of the shop.
In 1867, he partnered with the rector of nearby St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church to form a school for African-American children. This school had to be privately financed because Maryland did not start providing funding for public education for blacks until 1872. The 1870 census shows that Adams held assets worth $15,000, making him fairly prosperous and supporting the legend that Adams not only funded the building of the school but also paid all of the teachers himself.
By 1880, the record shows that Adams had a number of young African-American men boarding his home and training in the business. He was also one of the founders of an amusement park known as Greenwood Electric Park, which attracted African Americans from all over the area. Because of his success in these business interests, his is now touted as the First African American Entrepreneur of Baltimore County.
While I’m not convinced he was the first, I am inspired by his achievements. And every time I walk by the old elementary school, I will be thinking not only of the generations of students educated there, but also the young men trained in the blacksmith shop on that site in the half century before the school ever opened its doors. It’s a shame more people don’t know that the legacy Adams left behind encompassed much more than an old stone building.
Much of the information in this article comes from research by historian Louis Diggs, http://www.louisdiggs.com.