Renovations stir court debate

Some believe balcony was used to segregate

June 27, 1999|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Nowhere in the 1824 Anne Arundel Court House now being refurbished is the weight of history more apparent than in the cavernous upstairs courtroom and its gallery, where black residents say Jim Crow laws once segregated them.

The upstairs courtroom was created in an early 1890s overhaul of the courthouse, which is the third oldest in Maryland. The building is being renovated as part of a $2.5 million project to turn it into a museum and gateway to the new Circuit Court building next door.

"I went up there as a lad to watch the trials," said George Phelps Jr., 72, who grew up on nearby South Street. "You went up there because you couldn't sit downstairs. If they needed more room, you had to get up and stand. African-Americans, unless they were on trial, they weren't sitting downstairs, I can tell you that."

Phelps became the county's first black deputy sheriff in 1953, as overt segregation crumbled and blacks sat downstairs in the courtroom. He is working on a book about local African-American social history.

"It's a fact. It's hard for people to see that and understand that," said Phelps. "You didn't give great thought to it. That's just the way it was back then."

Author Philip L. Brown, 90, an educator and historian of black Annapolis, said he suspects the gallery is one of few left in Annapolis or the area, because other buildings with segregated galleries -- theaters and churches among them -- have been razed.

"It's a reminder, but that's the way it was. That's a part of the history of the country. You can do all you want, but you can't erase it," Brown said.

The 44-foot-long gallery with three risers runs the width of the rear of the courtroom. Five arches enclose the top. A low wooden wall -- too low to meet current building codes -- wraps the bottom.

"It's `To Kill a Mockingbird.' That balcony was put up for segregation," court administrator Robert G. Wallace said. The push for racial divides was under way locally when the courthouse was being renovated from 1892 to 1894, he said.

Racial separation bills surfaced in Maryland in 1902, according to Robert J. Brugger's history, "Maryland: A Middle Temperament." By 1904, Jim Crow laws officially segregated most public accommodations.

Some historians caution that what the Anne Arundel courthouse planners were thinking remains uncertain. Many records are missing and no documentation exists about the balcony.

"We did not find any direct evidence to why they had a balcony," said F. Neale Quenzel, vice president of John Milner Associates, the West Chester, Pa., architectural restoration company that prepared a 1993 structural report on the old courthouse.

Galleries `are traditional'

Carl R. Lounsbury, architectural historian at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia, said balconies arrived in high-ceilinged courtrooms in the early 19th century. In the antebellum Virginia courthouses he researched, no references were made to galleries for racial segregation because few blacks were invited into courthouses. Later, balconies became common in courthouses.

"They are traditional -- not just as a means of segregating black folks when they were first being built, but they may have taken on that use," he said.

The balconies were used to separate groups of people, historians said. Some pre-Civil War churches had slave galleries, and older black Annapolis residents recall being relegated to church balconies. Anglican churches of the 18th century had balconies for upper-crust parishioners. The old Senate chamber in the State House in Annapolis, built in the 1780s, had a women's gallery.

The old Anne Arundel courthouse is being refurbished in a hodgepodge of time periods. Repeated alterations and additions over the life of the old building, plus the lack of original design information, made a renovation true to one date impossible.

Instead, said county historian Donna Ware, the restoration "is respecting what survives of each of the significant periods of its evolution."

Courtroom alterations

One less-obvious alteration is at the front of the courtroom. The tabletop of the judge's behemoth bench got a face lift. Propped flat in recent years so papers didn't slip into the judge's lap, it was returned to its slanted writing table position of the early part of the century, Wallace said.

To the left of the judge's bench, waist-high panels cover the front of the jury box. The dark wood hides a pipe railing, but was used to make modesty panels, Wallace explained. The panels were added with the advent of female jurors after women won voting rights.

The courtroom has one stark contrast to the new high-tech courtrooms next door: huge windows for natural light. Now, many windows are viewed as a security threat, said Donna Hole, an Annapolis historian.

Downstairs, what began as a register of wills office in 1824 will become a wedding room -- with a rear door leading to a vault.

"Here, I think we are going to make a museum," Wallace said of an identical room across the quarry-tiled lobby.

Everyone coming to the county courthouse will enter on Church Circle and pass through the lobby to a security checkpoint. In 1824, that area was the courtroom. In recent years, court clerks have occupied it.

A glass corridor tethers the old courthouse to the new one, but it's not apparent from outside, even from the rebricked courtyard facing Church Circle.

"When you look at this building, it looks like a freestanding building," Wallace said.

Repairs to the old courthouse are part of the $62.3 million construction of the new site. Half the new building was finished in 1997 and the rest is due to be completed in about four months.

Pub Date: 6/27/99

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