The city's elite black neighborhood

Baltimore Glimpses

March 09, 1993|By Gilbert Sandler

IN THE richly deserved tributes to the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, much was made of his growing up in segregated Baltimore. Those who came to praise and bury Justice Marshall had it right: The Baltimore of his youth surely was rigidly segregated.

But no one mentioned that the black neighborhood Marshall grew up in was unique. It was a neighborhood of the city's African-American elite, easily the most prestigious of Baltimore's black neighborhoods.

The area was called "Druid Hill Avenue" only because Druid Hill Avenue was the best known street running through it. It was roughly 10 blocks, with Druid Hill Avenue and North Avenue near the center, next to the broad, green open spaces of Druid Hill Park and close to the reservoir.

Most of Baltimore's wealthier black families lived and raised their children here. Many of the households, according to the late Gaines Lansey, a banker familiar with the neighborhood, had cooks, maids, butlers, housemen. Some of the men dressed for dinner every night in elegant dinner jackets.

Retired District Court Judge William H. Murphy knows the area well. He recalls it as a neighborhood whose residents enjoyed the services of chauffeured limousines and house servants. "They had their own coming-out parties for their children and debutante balls, so their children could meet the right people. And these children -- they went to the best colleges in America: Lincoln (as did Marshall) and Howard, yes, but also to Vassar, Smith, Penn, Yale and Harvard. This was in the 1920s, remember."

Although Marshall was born in what is now the "Thurgood Marshall House" at 1632 Division St., he grew up in the 1800 block of Druid Hill Avenue. There is disagreement among Marshall biographers over whether his family was wealthy, but there were many wealthy families in the neighborhood. Among them was Harry Cole, a well-known political figure, a member of the state legislature and eventually a state Court of Appeals judge. He lived at 1534 Druid Hill Ave. Truly Hatchett, a prominent real estate investor and member of the state legislature, lived at 2026 Druid Hill Ave. And Dr. Louis Harman, a successful physician, lived at 2024 Madison Ave.

Emanuel Chambers lived at the corner of Madison Avenue and Wilson Street. He made a fortune in the stock market. He was the head waiter at the Maryland Club and listened carefully to the conversation of the downtown brokers (all white, of course), and then made his own investments.

As a center of black wealth in a segregated Baltimore, Druid Hill Avenue no longer exists (although the street, of course, is still one of West Baltimore's main northwest-southeast thoroughfares.) One of the neighborhood's former residents, Thurgood Marshall, helped make Baltimore an integrated city.

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