No room at the (white) inn

Baltimore Glimpses

July 21, 1992|By GILBERT SANDLER

IN THE anecdotal literature of the civil rights movement, there is this story:

One night in the late 1940s, Louis ("Satchmo") Armstrong was checking into one of the best hotels in Boston. He was scheduled to play in the hotel's nightclub for a week beginning the next evening. It being the 1940s, the hotel clerk told Armstrong that its policy was not to admit blacks.

Armstrong, the story goes, showed no emotion. He simply turned slowly away, announcing in that famous, gravelly voice:

"I don't play where I can't stay."

The matter was quickly settled with a fine, comfortable room for Armstrong.

In that era and until the 1960s, black entertainers visiting Baltimore had the same problem. The most prominent of them -- Ella Fitzgerald, Nat "King" Cole, Sarah Vaughan, to say nothing of academicians, athletes and politicians -- were not accepted in the popular downtown whites-only hotels: the Southern, Emerson and Lord Baltimore. They had to stay in one of three black-only hotels, all in the North and Pennsylvania avenue section of town -- the York, the Penn and Smith's.

There is very little written history of these hotels. To put together thumbnail profiles, Glimpses coaxed recollections from long-ago patrons. Readers should know they are reading composites of what others recall. . . .

* The York Hotel: This popular, four-story hostelry was located on the northwest corner of Dolphin and Madison streets and was known as the hotel where the big stars stayed. They included not only those who played at the all-black Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue, but downtown at the all-white Hippodrome Theater: Dinah Washington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday.

Victorine Adams, long-time former member of the City Council, rememberes that it was in the York Hotel in 1946 that she helped form the Colored Women's Democratic Campaign Committee of Maryland.

Her husband, William Adams, a prominent black businessman and political leader, recalls that the Metro Democratic Club, in which he played an influential role, met regularly downstairs at the York. In 1954, black activists meeting at the York boldly fielded Harry Cole as a candidate (the state's first in modern times) for the Maryland General Assembly, and won with him. They no doubt toasted that victory at the bar (many remember its blue-mirrored walls) of the York Bar and Grille.

The hotel, whose outside had a classic Baltimore townhouse look, was decorated inside in the Italianate style. It had about 20 rooms and was Mr. Adams' favorite: "the finest hotel for blacks in Baltimore."

* The Penn Hotel: This modest little two-story inn, at 1631 Pennsylvania Ave., had a reputation for being small, exclusive and expensive. It was next door to the Regent Theater, which in those days had stage shows, so it, too, catered to African-American entertainers. It was the favorite of comedian Red Foxx.

* Smith's Hotel, at Druid Hill Avenue and Paca Street, was probably Baltimore's oldest and largest black hotel. It was built in 1912 by politician Tom Smith, known in Baltimore political circles as "the black Jack Pollack" -- a reference to the Northwest Baltimore political kingpin. It is recalled by those who knew it as palatial -- lots of marble, mahogany and red carpeting.

The hotel got a reputation for attracting free spenders, particularly gamblers from New York and Chicago. "Tom Smith served the finest bourbon whiskey in all of Baltimore there -- of any establishment, black or white," recalls retired District Court Judge William H. Murphy. "John Barrymore was a regular at the York bar, whenever he came to town. I saw Governor Ritchie come there often, and I saw him carried out of there often, too."

Ol' Satchmo's no stay-no play pronouncement was just one expression of protest. But it, combined with hundreds, thousands of others helped end segregated public accommodations in America.

Baltimore's public accommodations bill finally took effect in March 1963. The list of the leaders who helped bring it about reads like a "Who's Who of Baltimore African Americans": Lillie Jackson, Parren J. Mitchell, Enolia V. McMillan, Walter Lively, Elizabeth Murphy Moss, Walter Carter.

The York Hotel, the Penn Hotel and Smith's Hotel are gone now. So is the need for them.

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