Putting city history in its rightful place

A new historical society looks to piece together Baltimore's story

May 14, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

When Circuit Judge John Carroll Byrnes leaves the bench and puts down his gavel, he often takes up chronicling and organizing Baltimore's history.

The 61-year-old judge's hobby moved into the public arena last week when he emerged as founding president of the newly formed Baltimore City Historical Society.

Professional and amateur historians filed into the ornate ceremonial room at City Hall to donate books to the society's start-up collection. (Byrnes donated his book, "History of the Bench and Bar of Baltimore City." And author Agnes Kane Callum brought her book on a Maryland regiment of "U.S. Colored Troops" during the Civil War.)

"The least we can have is the printed word about our city all in one place, not subject to whims ... intact forever," Byrnes said in an interview Thursday. "It can be intriguing, like a novel. History in this city has a diverse constituency, but no place to go," with the closing of the City Life Museums and the Peale Museum in the 1990s.

City folklore and neighborhood life, which crystallized during a wave of immigration a century ago, would be part of the collection. So would oral histories drawn from free blacks, because Baltimore had the country's largest number of free blacks before and during the Civil War. The city was a destination for those fleeing slavery on the Eastern Shore.

Marvin F. Billups Jr., the city's recreation and parks director, attended Tuesday's event because he oversees several historic houses on park property, including the 18th-century Carroll Mansion. One project he suggested the historical society pursue is an inventory of historic properties.

Steve Blake, president of the Arabber Preservation Society, said he was there to point out that the city is one of a kind in still having horse-drawn fruit and vegetable vendors. "A-rabbers are the most unique part of Baltimore," he said.

The next steps for the society are recruiting members during the summer and meeting in the fall.

They also need to find a home. Several society members expressed hope that the closed 1814 Peale Museum, near City Hall and once the municipal museum, would house the collection. Mayor Martin O'Malley has not indicated his plans for the Peale.

Looking at the small brick building, author Frank Shivers said, "Next he [O'Malley] has to hand this over."

Without a permanent roof over the fledgling library of 100 books - now in cardboard boxes in Byrnes' chambers - and no money to speak of yet, the society may be as poor in buying power as it is rich in dreams. It's a stark contrast to the 157-year-old Maryland Historical Society, which houses millions of items of Americana: among them paintings, furniture, manuscripts and the "Baltimore Album" quilts.

Retired Morgan State University history professor Roland C. McConnell, 91, attended the gathering and explained the sense of urgency in collecting city memorabilia: "Every city ought to have one, a historical society, and we're one of the few that don't. It's for preservation of records pertaining to the city itself."

Until now, McConnell said, the state historical society in Mount Vernon has been considered the main source of Baltimore's history.

At the society's inaugural ceremony, some good-natured joking was directed at the state historical society: "They have all of our goods," Byrnes said.

O'Malley, who joined the ceremony, said, "This is going to be a great thing ... with pride in the sense of place."

Society treasurer, University of Baltimore history professor Jessica I. Elfenbein, said the endeavor was not only about revering the past but also "building community here and now."

The society's goals include indexing the Afro-American newspaper and securing free public access to The Sun's archives, which hasn't been done since 1981.

However, Sun librarians said the complete Sun index, archives and microfilms are available at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

McConnell, author of an extensive history of Morgan Park, applauded the inclusive nature of the endeavor. "In 2001, the new millennium, it doesn't surprise me," he said.

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