Nearly 3 decades in the making, new historical museum will tell East Baltimore’s story

BALTIMORE — The old black-and-white photo shot sometime in the 1930s depicts dozens of children crammed shoulder to shoulder on top of an outdoor raised platform that served as a public bath.

The youngsters’ arms are raised skyward, and they are getting drenched from five showerheads positioned directly above them. Their clothing — mostly old-style bloomers and smocks — clings to their bodies. Some boys and girls look directly at the camera, while others squinch up their faces. The puddle at the base of the platform is so deep that it almost captures their reflections.

“That’s a wonderful image,” the activist Roxcelanna Redmond (known as Nia) said, almost to herself, as she examined a wall of photos that will be on view in the new East Baltimore Historical Museum. The snapshots are a mixture of images from the late 1930s. Many, like the public bath, originally published in The News American newspaper.

“The children in this photo are integrated,” Redmond said. “That was unusual at the time.”

The library, which opens in April in three former historic rowhouses in the 2100 block of Ashland Avenue, is the culmination of nearly three decades of work to preserve the history of a neighborhood demolished in the late 20th century for an urban renewal project. During a December dedication ceremony, Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott said he was impressed that the facility is documenting a history that includes “the lived experiences of our long-term residents.”

Their recollections, Scott said, are instrumental for developing “our shared vision for a better, brighter future for East Baltimore and all our communities.”

Redmond, 70, grew up in the Middle East neighborhood; she said that in the late 1930s, her parents operated an ice cream parlor on North Gay Street and later, a grocery store on East Preston Street.

“East Baltimore was once a good, safe place where families could raise their children,” she said.

But the neighborhood fell into disrepair following the 1968 riots. In 1992, then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke and the City Council approved redevelopment plans to create a mixed-use, mixed-income community. But the renewal project had a hefty cost: the mandatory acquisition of 2,000 properties through the city’s powers of eminent domain, and the relocation of about 750 families.

Instead of opposing redevelopment, Redmond said she decided to put her energies into recording the legacy of the people she had known all her life.

During a 2010 hearing on the renewal, she reminded city officials that Baltimore’s history originated in the neighborhoods that sprang up around the Locust Point port after 1706 and the Fells Point port after 1868. She urged officials to build a library to commemorate that legacy.

“Twenty years from now, somebody might want to know the truth of who we were,” she told officials during that hearing. “And nobody is going to tell our stories better than us.”

Redmond’s plea caught the attention of former state Delegate Hattie N. Harrison. In 2012, Harrison spearheaded successful legislation to secure a $250,000 grant to establish the library on the campus of the Henderson-Hopkins School, which is owned by the Johns Hopkins University.

Renovation began in February on the facility, which is supported by the university and East Baltimore Development Inc.

The 2,000-square-foot museum includes galleries and exhibits and space for lectures and small performances. After the building opens in the spring, Redmond plans to offer workshops on genealogy, family scrapbooks, storytelling, and theatrical presentations on historical themes.

Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels said at the dedication dedication that the library will connect East Baltimore’s past to its present by affirming “the identities and aspirations of those who have lived here, who live here now, and who will live here in the future. ”

Plans call for involving the neighborhood’s existing residents in the facility with an annual Grandparents Day, a Steelworkers Legacy Luncheon, and a photography program documenting East Baltimore stories as viewed from the perspective of students from City Springs Elementary School.

Though the collection is still being assembled, some objects that already have been installed evoke what University of Maryland history professor Joseph L. Arnold described in the dedication program as “the quietly heroic people who have struggled and worked to make a good life for themselves and those they love.”

Prominently displayed on one wall is a colorful quilt created by neighborhood residents as an homage to pioneering Black women from East Baltimore.

Sewn into the fabric are photographs of such icons as jazz singer Billie Holiday, medical research pioneer Henrietta Lacks and Mary Elizabeth Lange, founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence.

The quilt represents “the stitching together of old wounds,” Redmond said.

Once the museum opens, visitors will be able to hear the voices of neighborhood residents at oral history listening stations. They also can browse through five dozen neighborhood “family albums” that were written by residents and are on view along a back wall. The books have such titles as “Letters to a Young Girl” and “Because We Are, and Because We Are I Am.”

In one book, author Deborah Pierce-Fakunle recalls a cherished childhood memory:

“I remember waking up at home and smelling bacon cooking and hearing my mother singing,” she writes. “People called her ‘Mahalia Jackson,’ especially when she sang, ‘Move on Up a Little Higher.”

And in “Inner City Blues,” author Daniel McCoy describes how he triumphed over a senseless attack.

“I was supposed to enter the Marines with a high school buddy,” McCoy writes. “After being assaulted about a female I had no sexual interest in, the incident changed my life. Even though the stabbing was near fatal, I did not let it stop my progress.”

Redmond doesn’t think of herself as the kind of person who cries at the drop of a hat.

But when she walks through the front door into the handsome museum with its exposed brick walls and modern technology, when she stops to examine a poignant, 1938 black-and-white photo of the suit-wearing, prosperous-appearing members of a long- disbanded branch of the Republican Club, she tears up.

“I’ve become such a weeper,” she said. “I am thinking of all the seniors who are gone, all of the elders who gave me their stories of East Baltimore. I did this for them.”

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