New recognition for Maryland’s oldest-settled region

It was founded more than a century before the United States was formed, and it was one of the first places you could practice your religion freely, whatever it was. Now, Southern Maryland is celebrating its designation as a National Heritage Area.

“This is a national story, and that’s why it’s important,” said Lucille Walker, the executive director of the Southern Maryland Heritage Area. “We are where Maryland was founded from a European perspective.”

What’s not commonly known outside of Maryland, she said, is that it was the first settlement in the Western Hemisphere where religious freedom was put into law.

“They even put their state house and they put their church on opposite ends of the town to reinforce this,” Walker said. “This was the 1600s. People were being burned for doctrinal differences. This was huge.”

Founded in 1637, St. Mary’s City is also where the first Black legislator to serve in the U.S., Mathias de Sousa, was elected in 1641.

“There are a number of firsts that are pivotal to who we are nationally,” Walker said.

The designation will help the region — made up of Charles, Calvert, St. Mary’s, and southern Prince George’s counties — capitalize on that.

“It is prestigious,” as well as a “reason to come visit,” Walker said.

A national designation means it is important to the nation, Walker said. It comes with about $10 million in federal funding over the next decade.

That money will help enhance historical sites around the region, as well as the programming offered there. It will also help the region market itself and better connect tourists and history buffs to the small towns and shops that already exist there.

“We want people to come. We are hoping that this will help develop places to stay,” Walker said. “We’re a little bit of a drive. Not a big drive. Much closer to D.C., but a little bit of a drive, a little time commitment.”

She said families who come would want to be able to walk the landscape.

“We’re hoping a national heritage area will help bring that about,” Walker said. “(It) will help bring a lot of the initiatives that a lot of people are working on throughout Southern Maryland.”

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John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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