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A Rooted Return

Generations After Her Ancestor Was Enslaved in Prince George’s, Grad Student Reinvigorates Area’s Agricultural and Communal Ties

By Sala Levin ’10

Brittney Drakeford portrait

A great-great-great-grandfather of Brittney Drakeford, a Ph.D. candidate in urban and regional planning and design, was enslaved on a plantation in present-day Capitol Heights. Now a planner for the county, Drakeford is imagining new ways that Prince Georgians can connect with the land on which many of their ancestors suffered.

Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle

IN 1902, Robert Harrod Sr. signed the deed to own land in the very county where he had spent the beginning of his life legally owned and enslaved.

He bought 13 acres near present-day FedEx Field, which he farmed throughout his life, then divided into smaller parcels for each of his five children. Their legacy was cut off in the 1970s, however, when the state and Prince George’s County took ownership of the land as the result of unpaid property taxes.

Brittney Drakeford, a doctoral student in UMD’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, grew up in the county and recalls accompanying her mother and grandmother on drives where they’d pass a particular stretch of land, vacant and wild. They’d always point out that it had once belonged to Brittney’s great-great-great-grandfather.

1940 Prince George’s County map

When Harrod owned it, the land had fronted a street called Harrod Road or Harrod Avenue. Now, the overgrown road is called Deputy Lane. “To literally see this complete erasure—it made me furious,” Drakeford says.

It’s an erasure that Drakeford, at least the sixth generation of her family to live in Prince George’s County (see 1940 map at left), is set on halting. Despite the county’s rich agricultural history, many of its residents now lack access to fresh food and are disconnected from the land seeded for centuries with a painful history. As a senior planner with the county and community leader, Drakeford is determined to remedy that. Through her volunteer efforts developing a neighborhood garden, opening farmers markets and helping churches become hubs for nourishment, Drakeford is building a community empowered in its relationship to the environment.

“My great-grandparents, my mother, they probably never would have thought that they’d even be able to tap into this information, and now they have a descendant who’s literally in a position to research their story, affirm their story, hopefully protect their family lineage,” she says. “I feel responsibility and a burden.”

House on the Concord plantation, seen here in 1936

THE CONCORD plantation (at right), built in the 1790s in what is now Capitol Heights, was the jewel of Zachariah Berry’s extensive landholdings—and the site where records suggest Drakeford’s ancestor was enslaved.

During Berry’s lifetime, dozens of enslaved people worked at Concord, growing crops and raising milk cows, oxen, swine, sheep and other animals in the shadow of his Federal-style mansion. By 1800, Berry was Prince George’s County’s seventh-largest slaveholder and a well-known figure in a county that was a stronghold of slavery in Maryland. In 1850, the county was home to 11,510 enslaved people, nearly half of its population.

Drakeford began to piece together the story of Robert Harrod Sr. in high school, when she was assigned to research her family history. She learned that he was born in 1851 or 1852, likely at Concord but possibly at one of Berry’s other properties. She began collecting information from her relatives, obituaries, census records, family bibles, wills and elders at her church, where a stained-glass window is dedicated to Robert Harrod Jr. and his wife. Eventually, Drakeford found the property deed (below) recording Robert Harrod Sr.’s purchase in the Huntsville area.

1902 deed documenting the sale of land from Mary Sheriff to Robert Harrod Sr.

It was “not unusual at all” for Black people to buy land in the county in the decades after the Civil War, says Susan Pearl, historian for the Prince George’s County Historical Society, though “13 acres is a pretty good amount.” Many Black families supported themselves on two or three acres, she says.

Black farming communities began springing up around the 1880s, and Black ownership of farms increased into the early 1900s. But by the middle of the century, suburban sprawl threatened both white- and Black-owned farms.

The fate of the Harrod family farm encapsulates the main thrust of Drakeford’s academic, professional and personal
interests: how zoning and land-use regulations have real-world consequences, especially for marginalized communities. What can a parcel of land be used for? Where can food be grown or sold? Can you plant a vegetable garden at your own home?

As a planner with the county, Drakeford has the power to “bring in people who have not necessarily participated in these processes before,” she says. She can inform friends and neighbors about projects, forums, meetings, proposed regulations. “I know how to communicate to them, ‘This is what planning really means for your neighborhood.’” And yet, as she sees her loved ones struggle with the diseases and difficulties that can come from an unhealthy or unsafe personal environment, she wonders, “Can I even protect my family?”

AT THE END of a quiet residential street in Cottage City, Md., past the brick town hall on a lot near the Anacostia River, Drakeford is at home in more than one sense. She wends her way through the community garden, its plants laden with cherry tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, pointing out the new irrigation system, the Concord grapevines, the beehives in the back.

Some of the Cottage City gardeners are part of the seed-saving movement, in which native plants are preserved by passing their seeds on to future generations. The indigenous peanuts, peas and sweet potatoes growing in the garden have evolved to thrive in the acidity of the local soil, the sun exposure and the weather.

Like those plants, Drakeford knows how to bloom in the land she’s planted in. “There are these environmental factors that make it easier for me, because of that familiarity, to navigate in this environment.” When she struggled in school, she’d drop in at her aunt’s house for a home-cooked dinner. When she needs advice today, she visits her dad down the street.

Drakeford was a senior in high school in 2004 when her mother, Sharon, died of pulmonary sarcoidosis, a rare lung disease resulting from the body’s immune response. The root cause is unknown, but research suggests that the triggers could be fungi, chemicals, dust, bacteria or viruses. The Cleveland Clinic reports that African Americans are four to 17 times more likely to develop the disease than white people and are more likely to have a severe form. Drakeford believes her mom’s case “was probably because of the neighborhood where she grew up, the impacts of residential segregation and the trauma of displacement,” she says.

Her mother’s death sparked Drakeford’s interest in her family history, which she continued researching as an undergraduate studying journalism and African American history at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, and in her graduate and professional work.

It was in college that Drakeford began to realize her interest in place and people. When a fellow student complained that Greensboro was boring, Drakeford balked. She thought that was impossible in any city, with all its residents and their stories bouncing up against one another in parks, offices, coffee shops and homes—and she was determined to prove it. She began exploring Greensboro, “just sitting back, watching, learning, listening and then saying, ‘Okay, well, what can I do?’”

She began volunteering at the African American Atelier, an art gallery that she’d stumbled upon one day while walking downtown. Eventually, she became a youth director and curator, organizing exhibits focusing on women living in poverty or young, up-and-coming artists.

“I started to realize that how we designed an exhibit … forced people to have certain types of internal reflections and certain types of internal conversations, and it also forced these external conversations,” Drakeford says. It was an early revelation that the physical environment shaped relationships.

After earning a master’s degree in management at Wake Forest University, Drakeford returned to Maryland and began working for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC), which governs land-use planning in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. She learned the nuances of zoning ordinances and started a doctoral program in urban and regional planning and design at UMD.

“I’ve learned things (from Drakeford) that I wasn’t necessarily able to see from academe and from a researcher’s perspective, in terms of … the bureaucracy of the process of planning,” says Marccus Hendricks, Drakeford’s adviser and assistant professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “She is a sponge in terms of soaking up as much information and knowledge as she possibly can, and really driven to really support communities in a way that they see fit.”

Train tracks run directly behind the Cottage City Community Garden that Drakeford co-manages.

THE COTTAGE CITY Community Garden (at right) is one example of Drakeford’s on-the-ground approach. Though she loved playing in the dirt as a kid, she didn’t nurture her green thumb until her aunt suggested they build a memorial garden at Drakeford’s grandmother’s home to honor her mother. Crepe myrtle trees, rose of Sharon bushes and irises soon took hold.

Later, Drakeford joined the Port Towns Youth Council, a program of the nonprofit End Times Harvest Ministries. Since 1996, the nonprofit has gotten Prince George’s County youth involved in their communities through peer education, internships and career readiness programs. The Cottage City Community Garden, founded in 2010, was one of its projects, and Drakeford now serves as its co-manager.

She wanted the garden to be not just a place to grow cucumbers, but a neighborhood centerpiece and a space for locals to find fellowship. In Cottage City, gardening tools and an irrigation system provided by the garden team allow residents to focus on planting, harvesting and socializing rather than figuring out how to supply their own materials. During the COVID-19 pandemic, neighbors have gathered in the garden for outdoor happy hours, and—in non-pandemic times—the garden hosts workshops and events for students.

Cottage City has few restaurants, coffee shops or other public spaces people can talk to one another. “By the nature of us having this garden, we literally create a space where people can come and gather,” Drakeford says.

Other benefits follow, too. The physical activity of gardening is good exercise, and studies show that regular access to fresh produce may have a positive effect on conditions like diabetes and hypertension. A ban on pesticides and chemicals helps keep the garden environmentally healthy, too.

Woman works in garden

Drakeford (left) often impresses with her ability to deliver what seems improbable. “We had this grandiose plan, which I was shaking my head about, about getting a grant to build a new irrigation system,” says Denise Hamler, a Cottage City resident who works in the garden. With Drakeford’s help, “by gosh, we got that grant, and we have a new cistern and irrigation system.”

Farmers markets are another avenue for Drakeford to help feed people, physically and emotionally. In 2018, after the local Safeway closed, she and her cousin, Kyle Reeder, launched the Capitol Heights farmers market, now in partnership with her church, Gethsemane United Methodist.

Drakeford and the team founded a second location in Suitland, and now the two farmers markets draw about 60 vendors, most of whom are Black farmers. On a late summer Sunday morning at the Suitland location, in a strip mall’s parking lot, the bounty included fruits, vegetables, baked goods, jams and sausages.

She “helps us to remain connected and remain relevant, and she continues to bring to the table what the needs of the community are and helps us to focus so that we are meeting the needs,” says Ron Triplett, Drakeford’s pastor.

Churches are a locus of another of Drakeford’s goals: to turn unused kitchens, cold storage space and, sometimes, land into a new branch of the food system, allowing farmers to use that real estate for food production. In a county where one in seven residents experiences food insecurity, according to a 2015 study conducted by the MNCPPC, churches—often central places in many Prince Georgians’ lives—could be key to expanding access to nutritious foods.

AT SOME POINT during the pandemic, as she was preparing for her comprehensive exams, Drakeford spent the better part of a month crying. Her uncle had recently died, and there was talk of selling the church where her great-great-grandparents were buried. She felt powerless. “I have perceived power” because of her position in county government, she says, but “I don’t have enough power to save my family, in a sense.”

In person, Drakeford is buoyant and talkative, willing to give generously of herself and her time. And yet, she admits, “I’m exhausted.” She feels the trauma her long-ago ancestors experienced on this land, and newer trauma, too. Her father, she says, was pulled over by county police when he was a teenager, accused of robbing a store he’d never been to and put in the back of the police car. Though he wasn’t physically harmed, Drakeford says the moment was “a very pronounced incident” in his relationship with the county he grew up in.

On her personal website, Drakeford muses about how Black people must look both forward and backward in shaping their lives. “If you’ve sat in a conversation with me for more than 30 minutes, at some point I’ve probably drifted into some ideas of Afro-futurism; Black people planning their future and preserving their history as radical acts of time travel and time reclamation.” She plans and builds, believing that doing so can take back some of what was lost.

Drakeford’s father and his sisters own a parcel of inherited property in South Carolina, where she’s leading the family in creating a land trust to preserve it permanently. At 15 acres, it’s a little more than the farmland her great-great-great-grandfather bought for himself and his descendants. She hopes one day they’ll start a family farm there—a loop connecting past and future, a harkening to what came before and a stake in what is still to come.

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