History most Baltimoreans missed

Baltimore Glimpses

November 13, 1990|By -- GILBERT SANDLER

UNTIL the early 1950s, the white press in Baltimore (principally The Sun, The Evening Sun and the Baltimore News-Post) did not concern itself much with covering the black community. The chief responsibility for recording black Baltimore's life and times then lay with the Baltimore Afro-American Newspapers. About 100 years of the records and photographs behind those stories are now in the Afro-American Newspaper Archives and Research Center (AANARC), temporarily located on the campus of Bowie State University. LTC Archivists are busy at work organizing this hidden sector of Baltimore's past. It is Baltimore history most Baltimoreans missed.

For example, although lynchings in Maryland were reported by the white press, a comparison shows that the Afro reported them in far greater depth, supported the news with features and pictures, and stayed with the stories longer. According to AANARC Senior Archivist Dr. Frederick Stielow, "Lynchings were red flag for the black press. To get and stay close to the story the Afro would often hire light-skinned African-Americans, or even white reporters." The last lynchings in Maryland were of George Armand in 1933, Matthew Williams in 1931 and King Johnson in 1911 (the only one close to Baltimore, just over the city line in Anne Arundel).

The society pages of the Afro regularly chronicled the life of the Baltimore black community's important and socially prominent families -- totally ignored by the white press. It was a society that resembled its white counterpart and existed largely for the same reasons -- to reinforce exclusivity and to insure that offspring married the right people. The right blacks formed The Assembly, with its formal coming-out balls. Among the families in The Assembly whose pictures could be seen frequently in the pages of the Afro (but not in The Sun or Evening Sun or News-American): the Murphys; the McCards (Harry McCard's daughter graduated Smith College in the 1920s); the Warings (Everett Waring, Baltimore's first black lawyer, owned the Lexington Bank at Lexington and Fremont); the Smiths (Thomas Smith owned Smith's Hotel on Druid Hill Avenue and a palatial summer estate across from what is today Reisterstown Plaza.)

There were many stories about black businesses and businessmen. Among them, reported often in the black press but seldom in the white, was Harry O. Wilson Sr. He not only owned the Wilson Bank at Franklin and Eutaw streets and two savings and loans, but also founded the Mutual Benefit Society, a life insurance company. The company financed the building of the Southern Hotel. But because he was black, Smith could not stay at the hotel, dine there or even enter its lobby as a guest.

Years before the white press took up the cause, the Afro worked to strengthen neighborhoods -- black neighborhoods, of course. For many years, beginning in the 1930s, the paper sponsored its "Clean Block" campaigns and awarded prizes to the neighborhood that did the best job of keeping its streets and sidewalks clean and beautified.

Much space in the Afro was devoted to the activities of the black church and black fraternities and sororities. The paper editorialized often on the value to the family and the individual of attending church regularly, and it gave wide coverage to the public service activities of the black fraternities and sororities.

And sports? The white press missed most of the play of the black basketball team, the "Bandits," and the black baseball team, the "Elite Giants," and in particular the spectacular play of that Methuselah of baseball pitchers who played with them often, Satchel Paige.

The Afro also published fiction by local black writers. In 1950 these stories were collected and published in a volume called, "Stories from the Afro-American."

Perhaps the most glaring omission from the white press coverage of black Baltimore before 1950 was its overlooking of one of the city's (and America's) most distinguished scholars, W.E.B. DuBois.

DuBois lived in Baltimore for 20 years, from 1940 to 1960. He was the first black to receive a Harvard Ph.D. He was a founder of the NAACP, an eminent sociologist and polemicist and the first black member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In those 20 Baltimore years he lived for a while with his daughter, Mrs. Annette (Yolanda) Williams, at 2302 Montebello Terrace. A special room had to be built onto the house to accommodate DuBois's massive collection of books. He himself authored 19 books.

In all those 20 years neither The Evening Sun, The Sun nor the News-American ever interviewed him.

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