A Picture Of Black Baltimore

August 06, 1995|By JAMES BOCK

Sixty years ago, for the first time, black Baltimore made a thorough study of itself.

The landmark work, "The Negro Community of Baltimore," was sponsored by the Baltimore Urban League, paid for by a white millionaire, A. E. O. Munsell, and written by a black sociologist, Ira De A. Reid. It is now almost forgotten.

But the 1935 report merits another look. It is one measure of how much blacks' status in Baltimore has changed over six decades and how much it hasn't.

The rapid growth of Baltimore's black community -- and its segregation in ghettos -- began in earnest in the 1920s. That was the first decade in which the African-American population, driven by the migration of rural blacks to Baltimore, grew more rapidly than the city as a whole.

The migration eased during the Depression, then boomed during and after World War II. By 1970, Baltimore's black population had reached almost its present size of 436,500. In 1980, after three decades of white flight to the suburbs, Baltimore was majority-black. Today, despite some black flight to the suburbs, the city is 63 percent African-American.

In 1935, Baltimore was home to about 145,000 blacks, or 18 percent of the population. While many African-Americans still lived in segregated pockets that had historically dotted the city, a "black belt" had also developed.

It ran from roughly Franklin Street north to Druid Hill Park and from Madison Avenue west to Gilmor Street. The area included much of today's neighborhoods of Upton, Druid Heights, Madison Park, Penn North, Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park.

Pennsylvania Avenue was the center of black commerce and culture. South of Dolphin Street were rowdy taverns, dance halls and brothels, a stretch "so bad, the birds sang bass," one old-timer told Roderick N. Ryon, author of "West Baltimore Neighborhoods." To the north, "The Avenue" was the most vibrant African-American strip south of Harlem. Earl "Fatha" Hines played the New Albert Casino, and well-tailored patrons filled the Royal Theater and Strand Ballroom.

At the south end of Baltimore's black section was the slum known as the "Lung Block" for its high tuberculosis rate. Tiny, dilapidated houses -- some propped up with wooden beams to keep them from collapsing, according to one newspaper account -- lined interior streets and alleys. The area's crime and illegitimacy rates were Baltimore's highest.

Farther north, mainly along Druid Hill Avenue and McCulloh Street, the city's small black middle class lived in elegant rowhouses. Lawyers and doctors set up shop there, as did fraternal lodges, social clubs and churches such as Bethel AME and Union Baptist.

"In those days it was only a handful of blacks, professionals and schoolteachers, who lived in non-substandard housing," said Walter Sondheim, 87, a longtime Baltimore civic leader who was then a young Baltimore Urban League board member. "Take away the post office and the schools, and there were very few decent jobs for African-Americans."

Enolia P. McMillan, 90, began teaching in Baltimore's segregated schools in 1935.

"There were only two areas open to black women: One was domestic care and washing, ironing, cooking and cleaning; the other one was teaching," said Mrs. McMillan, who later became Baltimore and national NAACP president. But snagging a teaching job "did depend a great deal on the pull your family had."

Mrs. McMillan said her mother was told that, if her daughter wanted a job in the "colored" schools, she should see Tom Smith, a black hotelier who had "pull."

Her mother refused -- "My mother said, 'If she doesn't get a job on her qualifications, she won't get any' " -- and it wasn't until 1935, after teaching nine years in Charles County, that the Howard University graduate taught in Baltimore.

Mrs. McMillan became one of only 1,350 blacks in public service: schoolteachers, probation officers, postal workers and the like, according to the Reid report. Baltimore's black professionals -- "one of the most representative middle-class communities in the country" -- numbered about 3,000. They were lawyers, doctors, dentists, ministers, educators, journalists -- almost all serving other blacks exclusively.

But even the most prosperous African-Americans were treated as second-class citizens if they ventured downtown.

"It was really a segregated city," Mr. Sondheim said. "I worked at Hochschild Kohn's [department store]. We waited on African-Americans, but on an all-sales-final basis. People couldn't return things, they couldn't eat in the restaurants, and they were only employed in menial capacities. The fact that blacks were not treated as full citizens as customers was a major issue with both the Urban League and the NAACP."

Half of married black women worked, often as domestics paid $3 to $10 a week, while only one-sixth of white wives did.

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