Listening to the People of the Fields
How a local artist found not only his calling, but also friendship and community
by Margaret Tearman
William ‘Billy’ Poe walks down the lane to find his inspiration from the people at home in Calvert County. An author, photographer and budding filmmaker, Poe’s mission is to get these stories told before the storytellers disappear.
Billy Poe was born in the District of Columbia, but his family relocated to Dunkirk when he was 10 years old. There, in his new neighborhood, he fell under the spell of people time was passing by.
“Our house was in between the homes of two African American farmers,” Poe says. “As a child, I would sit for hours and hours, listening to their stories.”
Captivated by their tales of a disappearing way of life, Poe schemed for time he could spend with his new friends.
“In those days,” he recalls, “I could still walk to the market for my mother. She’d send me off for some milk, but instead of going directly to the store, I would stop by one of my neighbors for another story. I would get so caught up in their words that I would forget about the milk.”
As a man, Poe’s passion continued. “I have always gravitated toward the old black farming community,” he says.
By 2005, Poe acted on his passion. With a grant from Calvert County, he began to record oral histories of Calvert’s tenant farmers. The recordings, commissioned by the Calvert County Historical District Committee, are now part of the county’s historical archives.
“Calvert has a deeply rooted community of beautiful people just outside of Washington, D.C., with a lifestyle so completely at odds with life in the city,” says Poe.
Preserving the Keepers of the Field
With the help of the families, Poe has been collecting historic pictures to combine with his own snapshots for a photographic history of the African American community in Calvert County.
“I want to tell their story through photographs. I want to show the faces of Calvert County,” Poe said of the result of his efforts, African Americans of Calvert County, a book to be released by autumn.
A book is only the first of the records Poe plans to publish. As he interviewed, he also videotaped. “I have dozens of interviews recorded on probably hundreds of hours of tape,” Poe says.
From that footage he’s producing a documentary, Keepers of the Field. He’ll hire a professional film editor to condense all those hours into an-hour-long format he hopes will appeal to public television.
The journey has given Poe more than a new identity as an artist. He’s also found a home in his adopted community.
“Two and half years ago I started dropping in on the choir practice at Patuxent United Methodist Church,” Poe says. “After about six months, they invited me to join them. I declined at first I can’t sing but they talked me into it.”
Today Poe is the youngest and only white member of the choir.
To give back to his adopted community, Poe is setting up a non-profit foundation, I Am Somebody, to grant scholarships to descendants of Calvert’s tenant farmers. Fifty percent of profits from his book, film and any future projects will be deposited to the foundation’s coffers.
“Most of the old farmers never received a formal education,” Poe says. “I want to do something to help future generations.”