Pride flows forth from historic past

Neighborhood profile

Wilson Park began as a place of hope for Baltimore blacks

August 26, 2001|By Charles Belfoure | Charles Belfoure,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Homeownership is the key to a successful neighborhood," said Charles McDaniel.

And that's exactly what was believed by Harry O'Neill Wilson, who 84 years ago founded McDaniel's community, Wilson Park.

For blacks in early 20th-century Baltimore, housing opportunities were limited, and homeownership was an impossibility for most.

In 1917, Wilson created a development specifically to give black families the chance to own their homes or to have access to decent rental housing. It was the first community in Baltimore to be developed solely for blacks.

McDaniel's father took advantage of this opportunity in the early 1920s when he bought a lot from Wilson and built a home. To make a move such as that from a crowded rowhouse at Aisquith Street and North Avenue to a single-family house in what was then the countryside was only a dream for most blacks at that time, but the dream came true for the McDaniel family.

"I have the [price] list from the lumber yard, and all the materials, including the doors, came to $225," said McDaniel, who has lived in Wilson Park his entire life. "Nowadays, you can't even get one door for that price," he said with a laugh.

While all neighborhoods have a history, the residents of this quiet neighborhood that begins at the southeast corner of Cold Spring Lane and York Road take a special pride in theirs.

"All of us are very aware of Wilson Park's heritage," said Mabel Smith, acting co-president of the Wilson Park Improvement Association who bought Harry Wilson's former home on Craddock Avenue in 1997. And that heritage is built on pride of homeownership so the residents work hard to make sure their neighborhood stays healthy, which means limiting rental properties with absentee landlords and getting rid of vacant houses. In their eyes, renters don't have the same stake in the community as homeowners.

"We all got together to stop a big apartment project back in the 1980s," recalled McDaniel. "Busloads of us went down to City Hall to attend hearing after hearing." The neighborhood got the project changed so the design of the units blended in with the surrounding community and had the developer set aside 25 percent of them for sale.

Wilson Park still has most of its original wood-frame homes. Wilson built simply designed detached houses for sale or rent in addition to selling lots. Many are 18 feet wide with wood shingles and have a porch with a bay window centered above.

Although it's near two major roads, Wilson Park has a tranquil, secluded feeling. "It's what I call the `country in the city,'" said Vivian Lowery, a former president of the improvement association. It has all the advantages of a traditional neighborhood, she added. "The kids don't have to walk very far to get to the playground, the school or church."

Wilson Park's second neighborhood association is the Wilson Park/Northern Neighborhood Association. One of its main responsibilities is the Willow Avenue Playground that has been around for more than 50 years, according to Elizabeth Wimbush, chaplain of the association and coordinator of the playground. "We lock it in the evening and unlock it in the morning to keep out trouble," she said.

Harry Wilson was a remarkable man for his time, achieving financial success in an era of strict racial segregation. The son of the first black public school principal in the city, Wilson founded the Mutual Benefit Society in 1903, an insurance company that made him very wealthy. Wilson who, according to "Who's Who of Negroes in Baltimore" in 1936, may have been the only black banker in Maryland, was extremely committed to the well-being of blacks in Baltimore and thought they were entitled to decent housing.

The circumstances under which Wilson acquired the land for his development were unusual.

In 1917, America entered World War I against Germany, and anti-German sentiment in the United States and in Baltimore was rabid. German Street, for example, was renamed Redwood Street in honor of a Baltimorean who died in battle.

A German-American family wanted to sell its land, but hatred of Germans at that time was even worse than that of blacks and no one wanted anything to do with the transaction. Wilson told the family that he would buy the property. He did, and in 1917, at a meeting in the Beauregard School at Beauregard Avenue and Cold Spring Lane, Wilson Park was officially founded.

Even with the financial wherewithal to purchase a house, black lawyers, doctors, businessmen and schoolteachers in the 1920s and 1930s often had difficulty getting a mortgage.

Although Wilson Park was segregated, it was a place for a black professional to own a home and live in comfort.

Many bought lots and built large, well-appointed houses with wrap-around porches and bay windows, many of which still stand. Wilson's own home boasted a stone porch with columns, a swimming pool, a four-car garage and a circular driveway.

Before Wilson's venture, almost no housing in Baltimore had been built specifically for blacks.

"Wilson encouraged people to buy their own homes," McDaniel said. "But he also owned about 700 houses throughout the city that he rented out."

Given Wilson Park's unusual background, Smith wants to see it made a Baltimore City Historic District. She has already made a big contribution to that history by renovating the founder's home from top to bottom.

"Mabel's done wonders with that house," said Russell Williams, a longtime resident. "The property was so overgrown, you couldn't even see the house when you drove down the street."

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