150th anniversary of freed slave buying home marked in Md.

Greg Larry, Cumberland Times-news
Friday, September 10, 2021

CUMBERLAND, Md. (AP) — Descendants of Jane Gates and local officials gathered Tuesday to celebrate the life of the former slave who purchased a home on Greene Street in 1871.

Last week, both the Mayor and City Council of Cumberland and the Allegany County Board of Commissioners declared Aug. 31 as Jane Gates Day. Gates (1819-1888) was born into slavery and later freed during the Civil War. On Aug. 31, 1871 she signed papers to purchase a home for $1,400. Unable to read or write, Gates signed the deed with an “X.”

The house remained continuously in the Gates family until 1941. After changing hands a few times, John and Sukh Gates were able to recover the home in 2007. Known as the Jane Gates Heritage House, the property is now being restored with plans to become a historical museum and learning center.

In attendance for the 150th anniversary celebration was John and Sukh Gates and their children; Kathy McKenney, city historic preservation coordinator; Cumberland Mayor Ray Morriss; City Council members Laurie Marchini, Eugene Frazier and Rock Cioni and Tanya Gomer, grant writer for Allegany County.

“This house is more than just a building that’s been here for 150 years,” Gomer said. “It’s been about America and American history and everything that this women had overcome. Everyone can relate to some part of Jane Gates in their own personal life. Whether it’s Jane Gates as a single mother, or raising grandchildren or overcoming the racial strife that happened in this country. And then her being able to overcome all that to be the first free slave to purchase a property in Allegany County. That is amazing and should show everyone what is actually possible in this country.”

Jane Gates raised several children and grandchildren in the home. In documents from the period, her occupation was listed as laundress and nurse.

John Gates, who is the cousin of Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., a Harvard professor and host of the TV program, “Finding Your Roots” on PBS, introduced his wife Sukh. He said that she has been a tireless advocate for the restoration of the home.

Sukh said she had no idea of the history behind the property when she met John. “Little did I know all these years later we would acquire it and do something with it,” she said.

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