Bygone Afro ads depict vibrant society, business, entertainment

Jacques Kelly FHC ...

August 08, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

The Afro-American newspaper begins the celebration of its first century this week. It was on Aug. 13, 1892, that pioneer publisher John Murphy borrowed $200 from his wife, Martha, to purchase printing presses.

Over the years, the paper has chronicled black life in Baltimore. And, like those of all old newspapers, its back issues are a delight to read. I spent a few hours at the Central Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library this week and found these treasures.

In the Afro-American's issues in the summer of 1917, prominent among the ads was that of the excursion steamer, Starlight, one of the well-known sights of the Baltimore harbor from 1915 to 1928. As the ad states, it was captained by George W. Brown of 2103 Druid Hill Ave. He also was proprietor of Brown's Grove on Rock Creek in northern Anne Arundel County, a popular picnic spot.

Capt. Brown's Starlight was a happy sight on warm summer nights. The old side-wheeler had a star outlined in electric lights mounted on her walking beam.

Many of the smaller local ads paint a picture of the old black neighborhood along Argyle, Pennsylvania and Druid Hill avenues and Division Street during that summer of 1917: John A. Bishop, funeral director; W.A. Riley, shaving parlor; Frank Simmons, house painter; George F. Blackistone, shoe repair; L.E. Morris, beauty parlor; C.T. Chambers, fancy cakes; Charles A. Chase, ice cream parlor; Harrison Watts, violin and flute teacher; Charles W. Wesley, piano and organ seller; and Frances Melchor, Little Gem Tea Room.

Arthur L. Macbeth, a portrait photog- rapher, said, "If you have beauty we will take it. If you have none we will make it." His studio was in the 1000 block of Pennsylvania Ave.

The Carey Theatre, Carey and Presstman streets, offered silent movies accompanied by a piano player. The Regent, on Pennsylvania at Pitcher, had "polite vaudeville," augmented by Thompson's orchestra. There was also the Dunbar Theatre, Central Avenue near Monument Street; the Star Theatre, Monument near Bond Street; and the New Lincoln, Pennsylvania Avenue. The community was well served by drugstores: Digg's Pharmacy, Druid Hill and Presstman; Stokes and Derry's, Druid Hill Avenue and Oxford Street; and Fennell's, Druid Hill and Biddle. For those who liked home remedies, Old Man Walsh's Famous Old Herb Shop was in the 900 block of Pennsylvania Ave.

Greenwood's Electric Park, in Catonsville, did a brisk business in the summer. In August 1917, there was an "Automobile Dance and Shirtwaist Carnival" serenaded by the Drexel Syncopated Orchestra, Joe Rochester on the piano and Professor T. Henderson Kerr's Society Orchestra. The auto dance was aimed at getting couples to drive to the popular spot. Competing for attention was a "Great Union Camp Meeting," sponsored by Mount Zion Methodist Church at Parkwood Grove, Belair Road and Valley View Avenue. In March 1918, the Elks Monumental Lodge booked Albaugh's Lyceum Theatre, just north of the Hotel Belvedere on Charles Street, for its minstrel show, "Polite, classy refined." World War I was in full swing; there was a "draftees dance and drill" at the Richmond Market Armory on Howard Street. For those with money to put down on a suburban house and lot, cottages in Wilson Park (today's Alameda and Cold Spring Lane) were $1,600, plus $300 for the lot. There also was a "Patapsco Park, the suburb de luxe."

By the 1920s, the Afro-American had grown into a larger paper, with many reports from other cities. One feature was a full listing of Harlem society chitchat.

In Baltimore, famed orchestra leader Fletcher Henderson was performing at the New Albert Auditorium in the 1200 block of Pennsylvania Ave. The same group played on a bill with Duke Ellington at Philadelphia's Academy of Music on Thanksgiving night 1928 at a "football classic reception" honoring the teams from Lincoln and Howard universities. The annual match was a big event of the fall social season. The articles referred to the Duke's band as Ellington's Washingtonians.

The 1928 ads for jazz and blues phonograph records leap off the Afro's pages. The Columbia and Okeh labels offered Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters, Peg Leg Howell, Barbecue Bob, Clara Smith and Martha Copeland. The place to buy your shellac platters was the Jazz Shop in the 1500 block of Pennsylvania or at the Pennsylvania Avenue Cut Rate Tobacco and Music Store in the 800 block.

By the 1930s, and the repeal of Prohibition, nightclubs and restaurants were being listed in the paper: The Ponsetta Restaurant ("Where you can be served"), in the 1200 block of Pennsylvania Ave.; also, Smith's Cafe, Sam's Grill, the Goldenrod Inn, the New Deal, the Plantation, the Harlem Hi-Hat Cabaret, Grafton's Tavern, the Vilma Tavern,

the Bird's Nest and Al's Tavern. For hotels, there were the York, 1200 block of Madison Ave., famous for seafood, and the Majestic, on McCulloh Street.

Pennsylvania Avenue even had its own riding stable, in the 2600 block, near Druid Hill Park's trails.

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