After more than a century in Baltimore, Gypsies still feel unaccepted

November 22, 1994|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

Being a Gypsy has never been an easy matter.

Maryland virtually outlawed Gypsies in the 1920s. Baltimore followed suit a decade later. Gypsies were described during a public meeting as unsanitary, a menace of organized labor and undesirable to the police.

Gypsies of Romanian descent have made Baltimore their home for more than a century -- six generations are buried at Western Cemetery -- yet members say they still are not accepted.

About 200 Gypsies live in the city, engaged in a struggle to preserve Middle Eastern and Asian traditions that date back to the ninth century as members of the younger generation start to break away.

"Like all the ethnic groups in America, the melting pot has taken its toll," said Walter Johns, a nephew of Deborah Stevens, a revered matriarch of a powerful Gypsy family in Baltimore who was slain last week.

"The old school, where Ms. Stevens came from, is not always found anymore," said Mr. Johns, who is from New York and served as a family spokesman. "We have taken on what is the American way of life, which has happened to all groups."

Many members of the Stevens clan, the largest Gypsy family in Baltimore, work in the carnival business and travel the East Coast. Mr. Johns sells sausages, and his wife does fortune-telling, part of their Orthodox religious beliefs.

Gypsies came to Baltimore because it was a central location on the carnival circuit, and camped in Cherry Hill because it was undeveloped and on the city's outskirts.

A series of laws enacted in the 1920s and 1930s, outlawing fortune-telling for profit and requiring nomads to pay a $1,000 entry fee each time they came into Baltimore, prompted this headline in an edition of The Sun: "Gypsy horde leaves Maryland for good."

The law appeared to have been rarely enforced, and the Gypsies returned to the city two years later.

The 1950s and 1960s brought newspaper stories on Gypsy arrests and trials -- on charges of swindling, theft and fortune telling -- and tales of elaborate weddings and funerals.

In 1969, there was a recommendation to build a school for Gypsy children in The Block, a request shot down by the state.

Maryland didn't repeal its Gypsy registration laws until 1976, when a Sun headline read: "Senators fear gypsy no longer."

Mr. Johns said he is aware that there are problems with some Gypsies, but he stressed that many large families have settled into the area, own property and are as much part of Baltimore as any other group.

"We are not foreign. We are not strange," he said. "We have culture. What is a man without culture? Nothing. . . . It's not my place to question it. It's for me to live it."

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