Missing black history

April 15, 1994

The knowledge and appreciation of local history is a glue that keeps communities together and mindful of the perspective of their development. For that reason, it is heartening that so many good picture books have appeared on local history in various parts of Maryland in recent years.

The latest news on this front is the release by the Annapolis Publishing Co. of Philip L. Brown's "The Other Annapolis." The handsome volume charts the life of the state capital's African-American community from 1900 to 1950.

Mr. Brown is eminently qualified to write a book such as this. Now 85 years old, he was born in Annapolis and worked 47 years in the local school system. His previous book, "A Century of 'Separate but Equal'," was published in 1988.

"The Other Annapolis" covers a topic that has previously received scant attention.

Jacques Kelly's 1989 work, "Anne Arundel County, a pictorial history," included some photographs about African-American life but its scope was the county as a whole. By focusing on Annapolis alone, Mr. Brown is able to document in detail activities of the city's black community during some of the harshest years of segregation.

His effort points to a glaring gap in Baltimore's local history. Although several excellent picture books exist of the city's history, not one of them deals with the rich tapestry of the African-American past.

There is an urgent need for such a book about Baltimore.

Unless a systematic collection effort is begun, much valuable photographic material in private hands may be lost. An example: The Sphinx Club, a now-defunct Pennsylvania Avenue organization that once was the hub of the social life of Baltimore's black professionals, assembled an ample collection of still photographs and movies of its activities. Most of them seem to have disappeared.

Much photo material about black Baltimore exists in such deposits as the Afro-American Newspaper Archives (now at Bowie State University) and the Maryland Historical Society. There are other, mostly untapped, sources as well, including private photographers' files. Every time a photographer or an old Baltimorean dies, valuable memorabilia is in danger of being discarded.

As Baltimore prepares to celebrate the bicentennial of its incorporation, documenting the city's black history should be a priority. The more it is delayed, the more difficult it will get.

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