In Southern Maryland, Native peoples fought to keep their traditions alive from the earliest days of European colonization. It’s the location of the first Roman Catholic Mass in the English-speaking colonies. And it’s where the first person of African descent served in a legislative body in America.

Now, it’s where those feats, among others, are commemorated as part of a new federal designation. The region — a joining-together of Calvert, Charles, St. Mary’s, and southern Prince George’s counties — has been formally declared a National Heritage Area.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, center, joins local tribal leaders in celebrating the creation of the Southern Maryland National Heritage Area during an event on May 25, 2023, at Piscataway Park in Accokeek. Credit: Sophia Handel/The Hatcher Group

Congress passed the measure creating the heritage area on Dec. 22, 2022, and President Biden signed it into law on Jan. 5, 2023. With its creation, there are now 62 national heritage areas nationwide.

The program is aimed at sites where “historical, cultural, and natural resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes,” according to a National Park Service website.

For example, NHAs in the Chesapeake Bay region draw attention to the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, the Civil War battlefields of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and the Appalachian forests of Maryland and West Virginia.

The new law raised $10 million over ten years to support the Southern Maryland region. Supporters say that the designation and funding will help expand educational and historical programming in the region, boosting tourism and economic growth.

“It says this region is important to the nation for these reasons and to visit it,” said Lucille Walker, executive director of the new national heritage area. Since 2015, Walker has overseen the state-designated heritage area that overlaps much of the federally recognized landscape. She added that both at her disposal “ups your game at every level.”

She and other advocates cite a National Park Service statistic showing that National Heritage Areas lead to an average of $5.50 in economic activity for every $1 federal investment.

Chairman Francis Gray of the Piscataway Conoy Tribe delivers remarks during an event at Piscataway Park in Accokeek on May 25, 2023, to celebrate the creation of the Southern Maryland National Heritage Area. Looking on from left to right are Lucille Walker, executive director of the Southern Maryland National Heritage Area; Maryland Gov. Wes Moore; and Chief Mark Tayac of the Piscataway Indian Nation. Credit: Sophia Handel/The Hatcher Group

The annual $1 million federal spending for the new heritage area represents a windfall. The state heritage area program has an annual operating budget of about $6 million, which it must divide among 13 designated areas. Each year, Walker’s organization, Destination Southern Maryland, receives $100,000 in state operating funds.

Individual state grants of up to $500,000 are available for building projects and educational programs, though fierce competition exists.

Acquiring the new federal designation was not a foregone conclusion, especially when federal lawmakers are increasingly cautious about committing to new spending.

After marshaling local support, Walker and her allies completed a feasibility study. Then, they got members of Congress on board, enlisting the help of Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Steny Hoyer, all of Maryland.

As with other NHAs, the designation confers no new restrictions on property owners within its boundaries. Participation in the program, operated by the National Park Service, is voluntary.

The process took about two years, a quick turnaround by national heritage standards, Walker said. It has taken some sites up to 20 years to gain recognition.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore headlined a May 25 gathering celebrating the establishment of the new heritage area. “This designation raises the region’s profile and brings great economic, environmental, and cultural benefits,” he said. “National Heritage Areas connect communities, promote awareness, and foster interest in our rich natural resources and diverse heritage.”

The event, hosted at Piscataway Park in Accokeek, featured a blend of entertainment as varied as the region. It included performances by the Piscataway Indian Nation drums, Spring Ridge Rhythm Club, and “colonial singers” David and Ginger Hildebrand.

Onlookers could also look out onto the water toward the region’s past with a visit from the Maryland Dove, a re-created 17th-century historic ship typically docked in St. Mary’s County.

Lucille Walker, executive director of the Southern Maryland National Heritage Area, holds the citation that officially created the heritage area during an event on May 25, 2023, at Piscataway Park in Accokeek. Credit: Sophia Handel/The Hatcher Group

The historical timeline highlighted by the designation stretches back thousands of years and into the present day. Representatives of the two state-recognized tribes in the area, the Piscataway Indian Nation and Piscataway Conoy Tribe say they hope it will help spread their stories to new audiences and remind people that they’re still here.

“You can’t speak of Maryland without speaking of its first peoples,” said Chairman Francis Gray of the Piscataway Conoy Tribe, an early advocate for the federal move. “It has always been a non-Native person speaking about non-Native ways. This allows Native peoples to speak about our ways, to speak with authority.”

African American history also will be at the forefront, Walker said. The region is home to Historic Sotterley, the only Tidewater plantation open to the public in Maryland. Gwen Bankins, a descendant of a family once enslaved at Sotterley and a board member of the nonprofit that operates the site, said she looks forward to sharing the full story of America through her Southern Maryland lens.

“I see helping people deal with a very painful part of history. History is pretty, but it’s also painful. We must discuss the mistakes and the parts people don’t want to discuss. We can’t leave any part of the story out because it’s America’s story,” she said.

Walker said that now that the heritage area has been formed, she and others are creating a steering committee to author the area’s management plan.

This article was originally published on and is republished with permission.

Jeremy Cox is a Bay Journal staff writer based in Maryland.

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