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Community effort brings back ‘Briddletown’

Dozens of Briddells pose for a family photo shortly after a dedication ceremony for a new sign on Tuesday, proclaiming a portion of Berlin near Stephen Decatur Middle School as “Briddletown.”

By Josh Davis, Associate Editor

(Aug. 30, 2018) Call it Briddletown (rhymes with “riddle”) or the more formal-sounding Brid-dell´-Town (rhymes with “well”). Either way, the re-designation of a portion of Flower Street in Berlin on Tuesday afternoon was clearly meaningful to a large segment of the population.

According to new interpretive signs unveiled on Tuesday near Stephen Decatur Middle School, “During the post-Civil War years, a number of former free blacks and ex-slaves purchased house lots and small acreages along a ‘new county road’ heading northeast from Berlin to … Taylorsville and Trappe. One of the first recorded land conveyances along the new road was in 1866 when former free black Benjamin Pitts purchased 2 1/2 acres of ‘Mill Haven Pasture.’”

During the next several decades, “former free blacks or ex-slave members of the Williams, Fitchett, Briddell, Johnson, Purnell and Quillen families acquired properties ranging from one to four acres from neighboring white farmers.”

It was the first time many black families in the community became landowners and many lived together for the first time in a community where they could “earn a living and cultivate subsistence gardens and raise livestock.”

About 160 men, women and children lived in the community during the late 19th century. It became known as “Briddletown,” likely inspired by “senior Briddell family residents.”

The population peaked during the early 20th century and then, like many communities across the country, waned during the Depression as residents were forced to look elsewhere for work.

However, some descendants of the original settlers still own land in what is commonly, but up until now, unofficially, called Briddletown.

Worcester County Commissioners President Diana Purnell on Tuesday said the sign was among a series of interpretive markers developed by Worcester County Tourism to “preserve, protect and promote the rich history of African-American people … on the shore.”

“Historic markers identify heritage sites of significant life in our own backyard, such as the birthplace of the Rev. Dr. Charles Tindley, who penned ‘Stand By Me,’ as B.B. King made famous later, and ‘We Shall Overcome,’ which became the civil rights movement anthem,” Purnell said.

“Today, with the unveiling of this panel, we celebrate the history of Briddletown,” she continued. “Their struggles to obtain their freedom through purchase and hold titles of land … let them pursue the American dream for themselves and their families, [and] are an indicative part of the tapestry of our community.”

Setting the tone of the family affair and helping to deliver the invocation was youngster Raheim Briddell, who described himself as the “great-great-great-great-great-grandson of George and Martha Briddell.”

“They started it all. Thank you for attending our Briddletown dedication. Cousin Tony, take it away!” he said to thunderous cheers and applause.

Pastor Deangelo “Tony” Johnson said he was the “great-great-great-great-grandson of George and Martha Briddell, a descendant of their son, Kendall Briddell, who was the father of my great-great-grandmother Miss Bertha Briddell, who had the offspring of eight children, which are: Evelyn, Virginia, Clara, Rachel, Natalie, Blondie, Rufus and Oscar.”

James Briddell, the first African-American county commissioner in Worcester County, said in 1872 the first-born child of George and Martha Briddell, Jacob Briddell, bought two acres of land nearby. Six years later, his mother purchased two-and-a-half acres across the road and, in 1887, her other son, Irving, bought four-and-a-half acres across from where the sign now stands.

“Thus was the beginning of Briddletown … an event like this becomes successful only if you – the participants – survive. They are – no, you are – the lifeblood of this event,” he said, looking out into a crowd of dozens upon dozens of Briddell relatives.

“On behalf of the Briddell family, it is my pleasure – no, it is my sincere duty – to express our gratitude to the Worcester County Commissioners, the Town of Berlin, the sponsors like Miss Pat Jolley of Jolley’s Funeral Homes, and all of you, my fellow citizens, for being here with us and making the dedication of this historical interpretive Berlin sign a very special day,” he said.

“You took this seriously and you put it back to its origin. And when this was unveiled today, that means it will always be … Briddletown!” he added.

Also representing the Briddell family were sisters Sandra Briddell Dublin and Sharon Briddell-Fowlis, the great-granddaughters of Kendall Briddell and the two women who carved out the idea of recognizing and re-designating the area, and then searched for a partner in local government that could make it happen.

During the ceremony, they handed out gifts to Worcester County Tourism Director Lisa Challenger for helping oversee the project, historian Paul Baker Touart, for uncovering much of the history written on the sign, and to the county commissioners, for providing funding.

Afterward, Dublin said her motivation was in preserving the history of her family and community.

“For all my life, I’ve been hearing about Briddletown. They talked about it with so much pride, and my ancestors that with all their years here supported the community and being prideful of the community, and I just wanted their legacy to live on,” she said. “So, I had the vision to propose to have a sign and they, in turn, gave us more than a sign – they also made it a historic district – so, we’re very grateful.”

Dublin said many Briddells now live outside of town, but the family arranged for a massive reunion to coincide with the unveiling. A family portrait taken later in the afternoon included more than 50 Briddells.

“They are all very excited,” she said. “My mother is 93 years old and when we told her about it, she became tearful, so she’s very excited.

“To me, this demonstrates what this community should be about, so I’m grateful for that. We have our government here, we have our families here, and it’s just a great day for community,” Dublin added.

For the record, she says “Briddell,” with the accent on the second syllable, which rhymes with “well.”

Briddell-Fowlis recalled getting a proposal together with her sister, taking the idea to Worcester County’s Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Kelly Shannahan in Snow Hill, and then later corresponding with Challenger and others.

“It took me three-and-a-half years to get this done – and it means everything,” she said. “If you see the tears – you see how we’re just falling apart – for some it was like Briddletown was slipping away from us, so we had to come up with something to make sure we kept that solid footing right here in Briddletown.”

According to Briddell-Fowlis, the pronunciation is somewhat nebulous.

“You see the sign says, ‘Briddle,’ so we’re thinking that our forefathers and our ancestors actually spelled it the way that it sounded,” she said. “For instance, if you asked me what my name is, I would probably say ‘Sharon Briddell’ (rhymes with ‘riddle’), but then my grandfather says ‘Kendall Briddell’ (rhymes with ‘well’) and so my mom says ‘Kendall Briddell.’”

To further complicate matters, she pointed to the sign, which includes the spellings “Briddell,” “Briddle” and “Bredell.”

“But the meaning is everything,” she said. “We don’t call it ‘Briddell-Town,’ we call it ‘Briddletown.’ That’s just the slang of the community.

“You see all the tears and this means everything [to the family],” Briddell-Fowlis continued. “Thank you to Worcester County. We really appreciate everything they’ve done to make this happen.”