Cab Calloway's memoirs tell story of growing up in a segregated Baltimore

November 20, 1994|By Linell Smith and Fred Rasmussen | Linell Smith and Fred Rasmussen,Sun Staff Writers Sun staff writer Jacques Kelly and librarian Doris Carberry contributed to this article.

In the early years of this century, when Cab Calloway was growing up in West Baltimore's Sugar Hill, the neighborhood his family called home was considered the political, cultural and business hub of black society.

He was the son of middle-class professionals. His mother, Martha Eulalia Reed, was a Morgan State College graduate who taught school. His father, Cabell Calloway, graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and worked as a lawyer.

Young Cab Calloway even had his own car in high school -- a used 1923 Oldsmobile he'd bought with $275 he'd earned working -- a rarity in that era, particularly for a black man.

"We had status in the Negro community, but that didn't mean we had money," Mr. Calloway recalled in his 1976 autobiography, "Of Minnie the Moocher and Me." "Negro professionals were paid a . . . lot less than white professionals with the same job."

Recalled by his schoolmates for his energy, good looks and sense of humor, Cab Calloway sharpened his talents traveling between the musical spheres represented by the choir of Grace Presbyterian Church, where his mother was the organist, and Johnny Jones' Arabian Tent Orchestra.

"I spent a lot of my time in that rough and raucous Baltimore Negro night life with loud music, heavy drinking, and the kind of moral standards or lack of them that my parents looked down on," he wrote in his memoir. "I managed pretty well in both of these worlds, I suppose, because I was accustomed to thinking for myself."

Born on Christmas Day 1907 in Rochester, N.Y., Mr. Calloway moved to Baltimore as a 10-year-old child with his family -- he was one of four children -- to his grandfather's house at 1017 Druid Hill Ave. and later lived at 1306 Madison Ave.

Mr. Calloway grew up in a highly segregated Baltimore that denied black workers access to skilled jobs. Restrictive covenants kept blacks from buying houses in many neighborhoods. Theaters and restaurants either barred them or required them to use the side or back entrances. Department stores that were open to black customers did not permit them to try on clothes before buying them.

Even so, Mr. Calloway said, discrimination did not mar his childhood. "White people have given me hell over the years but it wasn't so bad when we were kids," he wrote. "All of us black kids went to all-black schools and we lived in streets that were black. When we played with white boys, it was because we wanted to, not because we had to. And there was very little social mixing in Baltimore."

Speaking of his middle-class upbringing, Mr. Calloway wrote, "Not all blacks in Baltimore had that kind of life in 1920. . . . There was an area in Northwest Baltimore known as Lung Block. It was bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue, Druid Hill Avenue, below where I lived, and Biddle and Preston streets. The area was called Lung Block because so many Negroes down there had tuberculosis."

Dr. Lucy Mason, a Baltimore podiatrist and one of Mr. Calloway's classmates at Frederick Douglass High School, remembers Mr. Calloway as "a nice-looking fellow. He was very popular, I'll put it that way, and he was always singing," she recalls. He was also "pretty good" at basketball.

Mr. Calloway remembered himself as "the best guard on the team" at Douglass.

"I averaged around 10 or 12 points a game, and in those days 35 points would win a game," he wrote. "In one game I scored 22. That was the night I had a little gin before the game, and [everything] I threw at the basket went in."

In his senior year at Douglass, he started playing professional basketball with the Baltimore Athenians, a black team that traveled throughout Ohio, West Virginia, New York and the Chesapeake Bay area.

At post-game dances he was a familiar figure on the bandstand singing and drumming with Ike Dixon's band.

Douglass High School, which moved to a new building on Carey and Calhoun streets in the 1920s, was a showcase of talent, with such students as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Class of 1925) and such teachers as W. Llewellyn Wilson.

Mr. Wilson, a musician and educator, came to be considered "one of the most outstanding teachers of public school music in the country" said Eva Slezak, librarian in charge of the African-American collection at the Enoch Pratt Library.

"In those days, Douglass was the performing arts high school without the name," said Baltimore musician Robert Earle Anderson, a 1929 Douglass graduate.

Along with Mr. Calloway, Mr. Wilson taught Eubie Blake, Avon Long, Anne Wiggins Brown and many other prominent musicians, mounting such ambitious productions as "The Flying Dutchman" for his eager and talented high school students.

Essie M. Hughes ('25) remembers Mr. Calloway delivering a particularly memorable "Farewell to Minnehaha" in one of Mr. Wilson's productions.

The dedication of Douglass' new building also afforded Mr. Calloway the opportunity to seize the limelight. Halfway through the ceremonies, the school superintendent made an announcement about an illegally parked car.

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