The Downside Of Downtown Shopping

JACQUES KELLY'S BALTIMORE

June 16, 1996|By Jacques Kelly

On Page 2 of this magazine is a letter to the editor written by Elaine Forte, a black woman whose mother often took her shopping along Lexington Street in downtown Baltimore during the days of racial segregation. Read her words. To those of us who are white, and who didn't experience the bias that she so poignantly describes, the letter will impart a different perspective on history.

The period and situations that Elaine Forte discusses were about 10 years before I got my first impressions of downtown shopping. In my April 7 column, I wrote of my impressions of downtown shopping at Easter time. Forte's letter was a response to that column.

As a child in the 1950s, I was much aware that Baltimore had a large black population. I was also aware of how separate its existence was from the white parts of town. All it took was a Saturday shopping trip to point this out to an 8-year-old.

My mother, and her mother, favored the old, traditional shopping venues. A long day's trek through the stores usually meant at least one trip through a city market -- Lexington, Belair, Cross Street or Hollins.

My grandmother's family had lived for many generations in and around Oldtown. Over the decades, they often patronized the Belair Market on Gay Street. They preferred to get their sausage, scrapple and buckwheat flour from stall keepers there.

I recall a day we were headed for that market in a taxicab.

My mother gave the destination: "Gay and Forrest."

The cabdriver responded with a smart reply: "Oh, you mean the African shopping center," a reference to the predominant black patronage along Gay Street.

My mother, a former social worker, did not care for his commentary on her destination. "Take us there," she said in her best drop-dead-you-jerk voice.

As a child and teen-ager, I watched the racial scene change here. Living as we did in the 2800 block of Guilford Ave., this was not hard to do. Neighborhoods were racially changing. More than one white person questioned why we lived where we did. Laws were changing. News of sit-ins, Freedom Rides and civil-rights legislation was in the papers daily.

My mother possessed an open mind. My grandmother, born on Aisquith Street in 1886, was from an entirely different generation. Her comments about African-American people, whom she scarcely knew in a personal way, were typical of that period of segregation.

But by the mid-1960s, things were changing. And so was my grandmother, then well into her 70s. You could never call Grandmother Lily Rose a liberal on racial policy. But she was not mean-spirited. She judged by merit.

I learned this one day while on a shopping expedition. It was not unusual to have my grandmother accompany her daughter and a number of the grandchildren downtown. We were a multigenerational family when it came to shopping.

I was being outfitted for school one fall morning. I knew that with these two women paying the bills, my choice of garb would be limited. They also insisted that clothes fit right, even if that meant my standing up straight for time-consuming (and embarrassing) alterations.

As Elaine Forte writes, prominent department store such as Hutzler's did not encourage black patronage in the 1940s and 1950s. By the 1960s, this had begun to change somewhat. There were even a few black workers in the stores.

That fall morning, the three of us walked into the boys' department on Hutzler's third floor. My grandmother, who often called the shots, let out a command that I will forever remember.

Lily Rose surveyed the whole boys' department and pointed to a black saleswoman. She said to my mother, "Get her for us. ... I can tell she's good."

For my grandmother to admit that anyone was good was high praise. To laud a black salesclerk was very high praise.

We soon got to know this woman very well. Her name was Mrs. Taylor. She had a delightful personality. She was also infused with the kind of maternal common sense and practical values that played very well with the two women who paid the bills in my life.

Mrs. Taylor accomplished what no other salesperson ever did. She received the right to accept or reject any piece of clothing I picked out when my mother and grandmother were not present. She also had the power of determining whether a pair of pants I was trying on fit right. If she OK'd it, my grandmother OK'd it.

Years later Mrs. Taylor came up to me outside the city courthouse. She may have had jury duty. She explained that she had switched jobs and was now working for the government.

We chatted and I thought of the day when she passed Lily Rose's version of a very difficult civil service-civil rights test.

Pub Date: 6/16/96

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