Mapping routes to historic treasures

City's black heritage to be a focus of company's project

May 30, 1999|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Baltimore has long been known for its African-American heritage -- from the famed Pennsylvania Avenue, where Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday once worked, to the homes of Frederick Douglass and Thurgood Marshall.

But the problem that continues to stump those hungry for a taste of Charm City's past is how to find some of the historic sites.

They might soon have an answer with a contract recently approved by the Board of Estimates. The $166,748 management contract, awarded to the Heritage Resource Group of Virginia, will focus on identifying heritage sites and finding ways to promote them for tourism.

"People will go to see where Babe Ruth was born and where Edgar Allan Poe is buried, but frankly, you wouldn't know that some of these [African-American] communities exist," said City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III.

The problem has been troublesome to local history buffs, because the city of 656,000 is 60 percent African-American.

Kathleen Gilbert Kotarba, executive director of the city Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, said part of the problem is that tourism efforts have not focused enough on Baltimore's neighborhoods.

"Baltimore has done a great job with the Inner Harbor as far as tourism," Kotarba said. "What tourism hasn't done is sort of get into other places that tell the story of Baltimore."

Heritage Resource Group will be responsible for developing a 10-year plan for the city to promote its heritage sites. The firm expects to have the plan, which will look at all racial and ethnic groups with a strong focus on the African-American experience, completed within 18 months.

"You really can't talk about the heritage of Baltimore without talking about the African-American resources," said Carol Truppi, director of heritage services for the company. "Baltimore has a lot of history and it hasn't been told, including the African-American history."

Local history buffs such as Thomas L. Saunders, who runs Renaissance Productions, work to promote African-American history with three to four tours in the city every week.

Saunders said 45,000 people have taken his tours, which include visits to the headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, the Orchard Street Church (an Underground Railroad site) as well as statues and residences of famous African-Americans.

"This city is full of black history," Saunders said. "People just don't know how to get to the sites. A lot of the signage has been disappearing and it needs to be replaced."

One of Saunders' favorite sites is a Druid Hill Avenue park in West Baltimore that stands as a memorial to Henry Highland Garnet, renowned for his 19th-century civil rights speech to slaves, during which he said, "Rather die free men than to live and be slaves."

Saunders, supervisor of community education for the Baltimore Community Relations Commission, said that while he tries to promote the heritage of African-Americans in the city, more efforts are needed. He said a 10-year development plan is a good start.

Pub Date: 5/30/99

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