African-American tour wins heritage group honor

Entrepreneur has a flair for history, showmanship

June 30, 1999|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Thomas L. Saunders has always had a knack for drawing crowds to his productions, but in Baltimore's booming tourist industry he is still the little kid on the block.

In May, his home-based African-American Grand Renaissance tour was nominated for the Baltimore Academy of Travel, Tourism and Hospitality's "Attraction Professional of the Year" award along with the Maryland Science Center, ESPN Sports Zone, the National Aquarium and Port Discovery. He lost to the science center's IMAX theater.

Tonight, the Baltimore Heritage Foundation, the city's nonprofit historical preservation group, will present Saunders with the 1999 Preservation Honor Award for his tour.

The two-day February tour draws around 5,000 people -- mainly schoolchildren and senior citizens -- who ride buses to Frederick Douglass' home, the Great Blacks in Wax Museum and the Maryland Penitentiary, which has a 90 percent black population.

"I am the type of man who can find history out of anything," Saunders said.

A 41-year-old Rosemont native, Saunders took over the tour from Thelma Banks-Cox, the city schools' first black female regional superintendent, in 1992. Cox began her tour, which traveled to locations such as National Association for the Advancement of Colored People headquarters and the First Baptist Church on Caroline Street, in 1988.

Saunders added stops and spent $45,000 on costumes, horse-drawn carriages and actors such as Frederick Douglass' great-great-grandson, who plays Frederick Douglass.

The grand tour, which is financed through donations, is held in February. For $30 a person, however, the Renaissance Tour will provide one of its six part-time tour guides for buses year round.

Since high school at Polytechnic Institute, Saunders has entertained people through an array of productions. In 1975 at the age of 17, he started the Rain Barrel disco club at Belvedere and Park Heights avenues, where 300 teen-agers would dance all night to the sounds of local bands like his brother's, Chocolate Rain.

After graduating from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 1980, Saunders began working at the city's Community Relations Commission, where he is supervisor of community education and also is in charge of the city's rumor-control program.

The program was developed after the 1968 race riots and attempted to soothe tension that resulted from swirling gossip. But today, Saunders is as likely to get calls asking about black history as he is about rumors of temporary tattoos laced with LSD. Besides his tour, Saunders researches black history and re-creates memorable events.

In 1990, he unveiled a research project about blacks' contributions to the horse racing industry. At the Pimlico Race Course, Saunders and 800 guests honored the memory of 1889 Preakness winner Willy Simms and clockers, trainers and jockeys.

Saunders planned the re-creation of a 1945 nightclub in 1992 at the Arch Social Club at North and Pennsylvania avenues, an area that had been a center of black night life.

These days, Saunders is irked by urban decline and believes that many of the sites on his tour should be treated better by the city and residents.

"Look at that trash," Saunders said in front of St. Francis Academy, a school begun by the first black Roman Catholic order of nuns. "If you go to other cities, it's clean around historical areas."

Pub Date: 6/30/99

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