A month ago, the vacant rowhouse at Ashland and Luzerne avenues in East Baltimore was just another abandoned property, indistinguishable from dozens of other boarded-up buildings throughout the city.
Now striking posters, photos and fact sheets depicting more than 300 years of African-American experiences cover two sides of the building in an offbeat Black History Month display that attracts dozens of curious onlookers.
Initially shocked by some of the display's content, many area residents now find it a point of pride in a neighborhood that has struggled with crime and drug activity during the past decade.
"A boarded-up building is always looked at as a negative thing," said Elroy Christopher, one of the activists responsible for the history display. "What better way to bring value to the building?"
When onlookers first saw the often-graphic reminders of the slavery, beatings and lynchings of the past, some wondered why Christopher and his partner, Clayton Guyton, wanted to dredge up such painful memories.
Guyton said Eastern District police officers asked them to take the materials down, but they were overruled by higher-ranking officials.
According to Agent Angelique Cook-Hayes, a police spokeswoman, police received a complaint about the display.
Officers were concerned about the graphic violence portrayed in the photos and made inquiries around the neighborhood to determine if the display constituted artwork or graffiti, Cook-Hayes said.
Maj. James L. Hawkins, the Eastern District commander, decided it should be defined as artwork and that no action would be taken.
"They realize it's a celebration of pride, and how much [the display] means to the community," Cook-Hayes said.
Michael Seipp, executive director of the Historic East Baltimore Action Coalition, thought the display effectively conveyed the message that if black Americans overcame the slavery, beatings and economic deprivation of the past, they can face the hardships confronting them today.
But while he supports the display, Seipp understands the initial reaction of police and residents. "It certainly doesn't make you feel good about our history as a country," he said.
Neighborhood resident Francis Keeling said the black community must overcome its defeats.
"It's a good feeling to reminisce history and not in the form of anger, but in the form of education," he said.
The display starts with the slave trade and moves through the civil rights movement, covering black leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gen. Colin L. Powell.
Guyton and Christopher culled information and pictures for the display from libraries, bookstores and museums in a continuing process that has taken more than a month.
Christopher said he and Guyton funded the display, which has cost about $1,000.
They plan to bring the display closer to home by including pictures of local leaders and community residents, which they hope to showcase at a neighborhood picnic planned for mid-March on the street next to the display.
After their initial startled reaction, residents became fascinated with the display and organizers were surprised to see it remain up for more than two weeks without being vandalized or stolen.
Guyton sees the respect for the display as a sign that the entire community can relate to the past. He and Christopher hope that black history might be the common ground needed to unite their neighbors, coax residents from their homes and persuade them to force crime from the neighborhood, which is known by the Police Department for its drug activity.
"The community has a responsibility now to deal with issues such as the crime, the drugs and the boarded-up houses in the community," Guyton said.
The display is only one part of Guyton's and Christopher's efforts to revitalize the community. About noon each Sunday, they collect food, a microphone, a radio and about 15 of their neighbors and hold a weekly "ministry" in front of Club Onyx on Ashland Avenue, where two or three locals give sermons.
The ministry has grown during the past six months, and people can often be seen listening from windows and doors along the street.
Said Christopher: "Everyone I speak to, I say, 'Don't move out. Stay here. This is an up-and-coming community.' "
Pub Date: 2/16/98