Before their voices fade

History: Hopkins students set out to record the local civil rights movement from those who led and lived it.

November 30, 1999|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Starr Aaron, 19, was raised on stories of the civil rights movement. She visited the National Civil Rights Museum in her hometown of Memphis, Tenn., and studied freedom rides and the Fair Housing Law in high school history classes.

Only when the Johns Hopkins University sophomore came to Baltimore did the tales come to life.

In a class that encompasses history, social change and race, Aaron and about 50 other Hopkins students are delving into civil rights this semester, not only through books and documentaries, but through interviews with those involved.

The students are tracking down dozens of Baltimoreans, most of them in their 70s and 80s, who helped desegregate shopping centers, amusement parks and Hopkins itself. Armed with tape recorders and lists of questions, the students are earning three semester credits collecting the stories of Baltimore's civil rights leaders.

FOR THE RECORD - In a photo caption on Page 1B in yesterday's editions, Sidney Hollander was misidentified as Paul Kramer. Hollander was being interviewed by Kramer's students for a project on the city's civil rights leaders. Kramer, who was not shown in the photograph, is in charge of the program. The Sun regrets the error.

After weeks of lectures and readings, the students held their first interviews this month.

"I definitely used to think of civil rights as something that happened in the past," said Johanna Ferraro, 19, Aaron's class partner. "I always thought the goals were achieved and everything is all equal and happy, but this makes me realize it's not over."

The class, called the Baltimore Civil Rights History Project, is the brainchild of Paul Kramer, a historian who has done oral history projects around the world.

Kramer, who attended Hopkins as an undergraduate, wanted to learn more about Baltimore when he returned to teach last year. After reading an article in The Sun in September about aging civil rights leaders and their soon-to-be-lost history, the idea for the class began to gel.

His students' interviews will build on those conducted by the Maryland Historical Society with civil rights leaders in the late 1970s.

The approximately 50 interviews conducted by the historical society have been transcribed, but many participants in the civil rights struggle have not told their stories, Kramer said -- particularly those who might not have been politicians or high-profile leaders.

"There were steel workers and house cleaners doing this," he said.

The city, Kramer said, has one of the nation's richest civil rights histories because the battle started here decades earlier than it did in other cities -- before many of the landmark cases and events that drove the movement nationally.

"Baltimore is more interesting than a lot of other cities because it had a big black middle class and black institutions that were mature," Kramer said. "In the 1930s, they developed race-based economic boycotts of downtown stores. Some of the activists say, `We still don't get credit for that.' "

Baltimore's history illuminates that the civil rights movement was not "just a steady unfolding of events," contrary to the stories of court victories and sit-ins that many of his students have heard, he said. "There were steps forward and steps back."

Although blacks were the heart and soul of the movement for change, an often overlooked part of the movement was the role of whites, he said -- whites like Sidney Hollander Jr., 85, who helped battle local housing discrimination.

Hollander, a retired pollster, talked with Ferraro and Aaron in one of the first interviews for Kramer's class. The pair arrived early one evening at his North Baltimore apartment to test their recording equipment.

"You'll have to forgive us," Ferraro told Hollander. "We're a little nervous. We've never done this before."

A quiet activist

They soon settled onto Hollander's navy tweed sofa for an hour and a half of listening and learning. He built his life, he said, around achieving social justice based on a foundation built by his activist father, Sidney Hollander Sr.

But the younger Hollander was a quiet activist, not one to march or protest. He joined interracial student groups and -- focusing on fair housing -- fought white flight in his neighborhood, Windsor Hills, as it threatened to become segregated.

Eventually, he helped form Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a nonprofit organization that combats housing discrimination. With developer James W. Rouse -- a close friend who would build the Inner Harbor, the Village of Cross Keys and Columbia -- he helped desegregate many Baltimore institutions well before the issue made it onto the national scene.

"The Real Estate Board of Greater Baltimore supported fair housing legislation -- they were the only ones in the country to do this at the time," Hollander said. "It shocked the National Association of Realtors. It was an amazing thing to see."

As he spoke, Ferraro and Aaron listened quietly, checked their tape recorder and took notes.

"I was fascinated during the interview," Ferraro said. "I loved hearing his stories. I felt like we could sit around for a week and not hear all his stories."

Bringing the words to life

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