Graying civil rights leaders tell of history they lived Baltimore struggles painful, if little-known

September 04, 1998|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Before Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington and before he sang "We Shall Overcome" on national television, Baltimore's civil rights leaders had picketed segregated downtown coffee shops and demonstrated to integrate the Johns Hopkins University.

But such details are little-known because the city's -- and state's -- civil rights history has not been fully written.

Which makes yesterday's gathering so remarkable.

Perched on metal folding chairs in a church hall and rubbing their bald and grayed pates, a dozen who led Baltimore's struggle for equality more than a generation ago talked about the blood shed and the insults taken. They talked of being barred from many of the city's most revered institutions -- and of feeling as though they could change the world.

The aim was to assess where they had been and where they, or, more aptly, subsequent generations, have yet to go. The participants -- many were in their 80s and 90s, some were ministers, most were African-American and all but one were men -- wanted to remind the two dozen or so ministers and students in attendance not to forget history.

"Today we have the privilege of being in the presence of the hall of famers of the civil rights movement," said the Rev. Douglas Miles, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, which organized the event at the Episcopal Diocesan Center in Charles Village. "They not only paved the way for my generation, but they are still holding the banner high."

In contrast to much of the cynicism that today shrouds conversations about race relations, the participants twice broke out in inspirational song. One quoted King's confident statement, "I know we as a people will get to the promised land."

No coffee at Mondawmin

Still, the memories were painful.

Some recalled not being able to get a cup of coffee at a segregated coffee shop at Mondawmin Mall, now frequented mostly by black customers.

"Can you imagine that black people were not being served a cup of coffee at Mondawmin?" asked Edward Chance, chairman of Baltimore's chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality.

In the late 1950s, the Rev. Vernon Dobson said, more than 5,000 people marched in Baltimore to protest segregation and the lack of jobs -- "the same things we're talking about now."

Sidney Hollander Jr., a white businessman who recently won civil rights awards from Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. and the American Civil Liberties Union, remembers when his father worked to desegregate the Ford Theater in the 1940s, picketing outside before taking his front-row season ticket seat to watch shows.

Psychological barriers

Chance, who grew up in North Carolina and attended segregated Hampton University in Virginia -- "Now they call them historically black colleges," he said -- remembers biology lessons taught with an evolutionary chart of primates that showed blacks at the bottom.

"We had to fight for more than the right to eat in a restaurant but also had to fight through the psychological barriers," he said.

They agreed that many Baltimoreans, particularly clergy members and students from Morgan State and Johns Hopkins universities, were in the vanguard of the fight for equal treatment for African-Americans across the region.

At times, many spoke with pride and laughter.

Chester Wickwire, chaplain emeritus for Hopkins University and

host of the program, joked to Chance about The Block, a section of East Baltimore Street that has for decades included a row of strip and dance clubs, "Hey, Ed, I was wondering about The Block. Do you regret desegregating that bit?"

'No time for relaxing'

But inevitably, yesterday's talk came around to the modern state of race relations. The tone quickly grew somber.

"My heart is sort of saddened that this is no time for relaxing," the Rev. Marion Bascom said. "The meanness and mean-spiritedness is a stain in our community.

"So now we can eat and use the spoons. What the hell?"

They decried the dismantling of affirmative action in many areas, saying it had been in place and successful long before it was stigmatized.

Affirmative action

Solomon Baylor, a U.S. District judge whose grandfather was a slave, said he attended school "on the G.I. Bill, which was affirmative action," he said. "That's what it was, but nobody ever protested that. Nobody ever complained about that."

With many members of the group aging, some are beginning to worry that much of the history could be lost. Ministerial Alliance members are brainstorming ways to record and compile their memories.

"Someone's got to write a book," said A. Robert Kaufman, a civil rights activist. "We're starting to die off."

Pub Date: 9/04/98

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