For seven students, a tour of Baltimore's rich black history began yesterday with a bitter remembrance and ended with a living witness of desegregating the city schools in 1954.
First stop on a cool afternoon was Green Mount Cemetery, where John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Abraham Lincoln, is buried in his family plot.
"I hope they don't have a glorified grave site for this guy who killed a president," said Brandon Hall, 17, a senior at Boys' Latin School, where tour guide Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. teaches U.S. and African-American history. The 33-year-old, heir to an illustrious family history, also is a 4th District city councilman representing West Baltimore.
His was one of two Black History Month tours yesterday. Renaissance Productions and Tours company also offered an elaborate one that featured actors playing the roles of historical figures -- including Harriet Tubman, who used Baltimore's Orchard Street church as an Underground Railroad stop -- and offered several stops around the city.
Mitchell's group discovered a well-kept site in Green Mount Cemetery -- where many notables of white society in the 19th and 20th centryies are buried -- but no note paid to Booth other than a few Lincoln pennies laid atop the marble family marker.
Reminding the teens that Baltimore had many Southern sympathizers during the Civil War, Mitchell said Lincoln's death shortly after the end of the war dealt a cruel blow to hopes for racial reconciliation. "Black rights were snuffed out because of a bullet fired by John Wilkes Booth," he said.
Driving on to Druid Hill Avenue in West Baltimore, Mitchell described the street as the heartland of culture for affluent black families in the early 20th century: "If you were black and you lived on that street, you'd made it." His great-grandmother, Lillie Carroll Jackson, lived in a rowhouse in the 1200 block for decades while she served as president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"She believed in real estate as a foundation and acquired houses on the block," relying on white friends to act for her at auctions from which she was excluded because of her race, Mitchell said. Along with blacks, Jews and German shopkeepers made it one of the few integrated places in the city at the time.
Trying to instill a sense of grandeur in a vacant lot was a tough job, but Mitchell made the attempt in the 1800 block of Druid Hill Ave., where once stood the boyhood home of the late Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice.
Pointing to nearby Stockton Street, a modest alley, he added, "Who would have thought someone born there would have a courthouse named after him?" The reference was to his grandfather, Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., a civil rights lawyer whose name is carved in marble downtown on the city's main courthouse.
The students -- juniors and seniors, white and black -- shook their heads in wonder at all that they hadn't known about the city where some had lived their entire lives.
Trying to imagine the scars of segregation, Andy Kleiman, 17, said, "I'm Jewish, so I think I can." He had recently finished a paper on Marshall and the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which ruled that "separate but equal" schools were illegal.
A schoolmate, Patrick Kotras, 17, pointed out that in some respects not much had changed: "Even today, public schools are predominantly African-American and private schools are predominantly Caucasian."
Frederick Douglass Senior High School on Calhoun Street, now converted into an apartment building; and the site of the landmark Royal Theater at Pennsylvania and Lafayette avenues, now a forlorn playground, also called for some imagination.
"This was the place to be for culture, where Billie Holiday sang, Baltimore's version of the Apollo Theater in Harlem. It was the place to shop if you couldn't go to Towson or downtown," said Mitchell. "It doesn't look that great," he added.
But, he said, there is some talk of having a marker or monument on the corner. The invisibility of some important places and names in black history, he said, made storytelling the most important way of preserving it for the next generation, a lesson he learned from his own family.
Mitchell then took the group to his father's office to look at pictures of the past. His father, Keiffer J. Mitchell Sr., 59, is a doctor whose practice is on Druid Hill Avenue in the Wheatley House, a block away from where he grew up.
He showed the youths around a gallery of mementos and photographs, then he took them upstairs to a salon where luminaries such as Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson had performed for the Wheatley family.
The doctor told the students of being the first to integrate Gwynns Falls Junior High School in 1954. "An unruly mob of neighbors came up, and my father carried a one-man picket sign that said, `I am an American too.'"
History, he told the students, doesn't always come with trumpet calls: "Sometimes it comes very quietly and you look back at the significance of those events."
He then issued the youths a challenge: "When you see an injustice, make a difference."