Leading The Way Louis C. Fields sees Baltimore's history and makeup as a big draw for African-American tourists. Look around, he says.

May 05, 1998|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

Louis C. Fields steers his car through the Baltimore neighborhood, passing public housing projects, boarded-up rowhouses, mountains of demolished rubble and signs warning "No Loitering By Order of the Police."

Others may see a depressing -- and depressingly common -- cityscape. Fields squints a little, dreams a little and sees flocks of tourists drawn to the once and future soul of black Baltimore.

"Thurgood Marshall actually lived here," he says in amazement, pointing to the rowhouse on Division Street. Down the street, turn, and: "This church was built 100 years ago by freed black slaves." A couple more blocks, and: "This was a site on the Underground Railroad."

Spend a few minutes driving with Louis Fields and you begin to see the Pennsylvania Avenue neighborhood his way: Not as it is but as it was -- and can be again.

"This was the heart of black life in Baltimore," Fields says.

Fields spent the last several years researching and compiling a guide to Baltimore's African-American history, published earlier this year with the help of a grant from the city. He sees his "Baltimore African-American Resource & Tourist Guide" not as a finished project but as a starting point for developing a network of attractions that celebrate the city's rich, black history.

An entrepreneur and student of black history at Coppin State University who declines to give his age, Fields is part of a burgeoning nationwide movement to preserve sites of African-American historic importance and turn them into attractions to draw tourists. He has organized a nonprofit group, the Baltimore African American Tourism Council, to spark more interest locally.

In the past, historic preservation, much like history itself, focused on the powerful and the wealthy, which in this country has largely translated into: the white. In other words, estates like the Carroll Mansion in Baltimore and the du Ponts' Winterthur in Delaware were the kinds of homes preserved and set aside for tours. But in recent years, activists have sought to include sites of importance to other ethnic and economic groups.

"Traditional preservation has dealt with history from an Anglo perspective," says Claudia Polley, director of the National Association of African-American Preservation, a 3-year-old group based in Indianapolis. "It's not wrong, but it's a very small focus. We're just now beginning to tell all of the story."

The African-American preservation movement has been building in the past five years and has yet to crest, Polley says. Which is why it baffles her that Baltimore has done less than other cities to capitalize on its own history and population. The city had the largest free black community in the country before the Civil War, numbering 25,000, and currently is 63 percent African-American.

"Baltimore could do more. It has such a rich history. It needs to focus and use its history as a catalyst for economic development. Cities that don't have as much as Baltimore does are realizing that this is key," Polley says.

In Baltimore, much of what comprises black history is already gone or commemorated only with a mention of what once was here. The legendary Royal Theater, comparable to Harlem's Apollo, is long gone. It was torn down in 1971. Other sites that still stand, such as Marshall's former rowhouse, remain in private hands rather than open as a museum. On a tour with Fields, you're more likely to see a statue of Billie Holiday or a plaque honoring portrait painter Joshua Johnson rather than their actual home or studio. It is, sadly, often a tour of the imagination.

It is a bad time to be historic, white or black, in Baltimore these days: The City Life Museums have gone bankrupt, meaning that the Carroll Mansion, the Mencken house, the Peale Museum and other sites are closed and some might even be sold. Meanwhile, the Inner Harbor is pinning its tourism hopes on the generic Hard Rock Cafes and the Cheesecake Factories, and the soon-to-open ESPN Zone, the latest of the ersatz theme restaurants.

Fields, though, has seen big-deal harbor attractions come and go. The city, he believes, is missing the obvious -- its own black heritage.

"They've lost money on the Brokerage, the Fishmarket, the Columbus Center," he says. "The big buildings are fine, but what really makes a city great is the people, the neighborhoods."

Fields does anticipate that one proposed Inner Harbor attraction will boost his cause: a state-operated African-American museum scheduled to open at Pratt and President streets several years from now.

Fields, who has published minority business guides in the past, is getting some response to his efforts.

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