History in plain sites

Tour: For two days this month, Baltimore's not-so-well-known black history will be highlighted through bus tours.

February 01, 1999|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

On a happy day in 1837, Baltimore's First Baptist Church on Caroline Street purchased a 21-year-old slave named Margaret Grant. Then, the congregation set her free.

Her freedom papers are preserved in a small, cluttered room in the old church, a room full of artifacts that tell part of the city's black history.

It's the kind of thing that excites Thomas L. Saunders, who is fascinated by history, particularly the bygone days of African-American Baltimore.

"People don't know black history, and, in terms of white history, people don't know that, either," said Saunders, supervisor of community education for the Baltimore Community Relations Commission. "People just generally don't know the history of cities."

Saunders, with history buff Alice Brailey-Torriente, will bring the past to life late this month. In a two-day event designed to highlight Black History Month -- which begins today -- they will lead thousands of students and anyone else who is interested on four-hour bus tours of Baltimore. They are planned for Feb. 25 and 26.

The tours will visit such well-known places as Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's home in Ashburton, the Great Blacks in Wax Museum on North Avenue and Frederick Douglass' four houses in Fells Point.

They'll stop at some little-known places, such as St. Frances Academy, a school begun by the Oblate Sisters of Providence -- the first black Catholic order of nuns -- in 1828, making it the longest-operating Catholic school in America.

The tours will include live depictions of historic people and events such as a 19th-century civil rights speech at Henry Highland Garnett Park on Druid Hill Avenue and a slave auction on President Street -- an event that nearly caused car accidents last year as astonished passers-by slammed on their brakes.

With about 150 professional actors and volunteer participants and dozens of sites throughout the city, the events are billed as some of the largest black history events in the nation.

"We have so much history in the city of Baltimore, and so many people don't know," said Brailey-Torriente. "So many stories and events and people. We're constantly digging them up."

If attendance of last year's tours is any indication, Baltimoreans are particularly uninterested in their history.

Most of the 4,000 or so students and Maryland residents who paid $14 to $25 to join the tour last February drove in from Prince George's and Baltimore counties, Saunders said.

Twenty busloads of students from Northern High School -- as an award for perfect attendance -- were among the city youth who attended last year. They loved it, according to former principal of the school, Alice Morgan Brown.

"They talked about it for a long time," Morgan Brown said. "The kids were shocked that [historical sites were] there and they wanted to learn more about it."

The Grand Tours seem to be gaining momentum: This year, the $45,000 or so it takes to put them on will be funded through tour fees and, pending approval, grants from such agencies as the Maryland Arts Council and the Maryland Historical Trust, which likely will match the $20,000 it gave last year.

Some city and state tourism promoters say such support is not nearly enough.

"It's getting there, but it shouldn't have taken this long in a city this black," says Louis Fields, executive director of the Baltimore African American Tourism Council. "People like Tom [Saunders] are responsible for keeping this history alive."

Saunders is passionate about what he does. In full tour mode, his voice quickens as he lists a seemingly endless array of historic and current black businesses.

This year will mark the third time he and Brailey-Torriente -- through their company, African American Renaissance Tours Inc. -- have offered to show schoolchildren the underground railroad tunnel at Orchard Street Church and tell them about Billie Holliday, using her statue at Pennsylvania and West Lafayette avenues as a jumping off point.

They'll also stop at such places as First Baptist Church, the oldest black Baptist congregation in the nation, and even Pimlico Race Course -- familiar sites that residents pass every day without knowing they hide the city's historical treasures, black and white.

Saunders said that in the 1800s and early 1900s, Pimlico -- and most other tracks in the region -- exclusively used black jockeys.

"Blacks dominated the racing industry as jockeys," he said. Before the Civil War, he said, horse racing enthusiasts "would buy horses from Lexington, Ky., and would buy the slaves and groomsmen along with them. The whites would try to emulate them."

As part of the tour, participants in period costumes will scrub white marble steps on North Avenue and will dress in antique nurses uniforms to wave outside of Liberty Medical Center, formerly Provident Hospital -- the city's black hospital during segregation.

Though many of the historic locales on the route are in severe disrepair, Saunders says that, for many, the tours evoke a sense of pride and history -- and sadness at the painful past of African-Americans.

At last year's mock slave auction, says Nancy Fossler, who played a slave-owner in costume, "the kids were yelling, `Don't sell that man. Please don't sell that man.' They were so upset."

Call African American Renaissance Tours Inc. at 410-728-3837 or 410-727-0755. Maryland Public Television has filmed the tour for a 30-minute documentary that will be telecast at 10: 30 p.m. Feb. 19 and Feb. 20.

Pub Date: 2/01/99

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