Book fills in the gaps

History: A longtime resident uses firsthand accounts to help bring alive the past of a small African-American neighborhood.

September 26, 2000|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

A well-dressed young woman, Vanessa Francis, jumps in her bright red car to go to her job on a recent summery afternoon. The political science major at Morgan State University has lived in nearby Morgan Park for 10 of her 20 years. What she doesn't know about her neighborhood could fill a book.

And now the book exists. Historian Roland C. McConnell, 90, took documents he saved over decades to write "The History of Morgan Park," covering the area's birth in 1917 to 1999. His book, released this month, adds up to much more than a neighborhood memoir.

He has wrought a valuable testament to the achievements and lives of an often overlooked part of the country's story - unknown even to some of the people who live there.

Down the street from Francis, for instance, on Montebello Terrace, civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois lived in the 1940s while working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Carl J. Murphy, Afro-American newspaper publisher, lived around the corner on Overland Avenue. Musician Eubie Blake and Thurgood Marshall were frequent visitors to this little-known Baltimore enclave, bordered by the university to the west, Lauraville to the east and Cold Spring Lane to the south.

McConnell reveals the talent that flourished in this historically African-American community, a graceful collection of five roads and 96 houses on 27 acres, with Herring Run and a few deer running through it.

The names of the giants who once lived and walked there register only "somewhat, faintly" to Francis.

"Dr. McConnell is so interested in having young people in our neighborhood know about its past," said Marva Belt, the retired city librarian who edited the 75-page paperback.

To celebrate the book's release, Morgan State President Earl S. Richardson and his wife, Sheila, who live in the President's House on College Avenue in the community, held a party.

Present was Betty G. Lyle, 73, president of the Morgan Park Improvement Association. A retired physical education teacher, she lives in the spacious white dwelling her late husband's parents purchased in 1930. She shares the sense of urgency to keep the next generations informed: "We need to keep building on the dreams and the legacy. ... Hopefully, they [young people] will understand one day."

The neighborhood, with many single, elderly residents and a handful of families with young children, may be both more affluent and less politically active now than in its heyday. But Morgan Park retains its composition: "There is only one person who's not African-American, and that's my husband, Stephen," said Belt.

Once the site of a grist mill and stone quarry, founders began with an effort to acquire a patch of land near Morgan State, which was established in 1867 as the Centenary Biblical Institute.

But in a city with segregated housing, would-be homeowners had to overcome an early court challenge. Opponents argued that a "Negro colony will seriously impair" area real estate values.

After the court battle was won, the account notes, Morgan Park was presented to prospective buyers in the 1920s as the first "colored" neighborhood to have modern amenities such as gas, city water, sewage, electricity and hardwood floors.

The first wave of homeowners built a mix of housing styles - stucco and brick Colonials, and several cottages that began as modest one-story houses and were added onto over the years. The shady elms are gone, but maple and tall pine trees line the two-lane roads that wind past sloping lawns.

Completing the volume meant a great deal to the retired Morgan professor. His professional expertise and experience living there since 1948 meant he was among the few who could write a comprehensive community history.

McConnell was prodded by an aging population and a 2000 due date set by his publisher, the neighborhood association. "We wanted to get the book out before people died," the Civil War expert said.

Because he knew most people in the pages, including DuBois, McConnell's book reads like a family album.

Murphy, he wrote, "molded the Afro-American newspapers into ... [an] uncompromising weapon in the never-ending struggle for first-class citizenship." In an interview, McConnell added a private footnote: The gray shingle house where "Dr. Carl" lived for 39 years was known as "Five Elms," for his five daughters.

That kind of detail illuminates the lives of scores of African-American teachers, principals, professors, librarians, post office workers, university administrators, waiters, dentists, detectives, small-business owners, chauffeurs, caterers, steel workers, mechanics, judges and bus drivers.

All have a place in McConnell's work. "We didn't want to be elitist," McConnell said. So inclusive is his survey that he relates garden club activities, church networks, yearly picnics, youth clubs and the fact that former state Sen. Louise G. Murphy, a current resident, grows tomatoes in containers.

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