Children piece together West Baltimore's history

March 31, 2002|By GREGORY KANE

MELAKI KING, dressed in a black shirt and khaki pants with a stately Afro adorning his 13-year-old head, draped his arms in a paternal gesture around the shoulders of the two college-age women seated beside him.

He then advised them on how best to cut the pictures that would be used for the collage.

"I'm a collage person," he announced, not with braggadocio, but with an air that hinted Melaki King, William H. Lemmel Middle School seventh-grader and member of the Principal's Club, was simply speaking the truth.

Soon, Melaki was cutting away at the picture that would go in the collage while 12-year-old Shawnece Greene, a Lemmel sixth-grader, tried to explain to the cognitively challenged Sun columnist just what was going on.

"We're making posters of historical sites and stuff," Shawnece said.

But Shawnece, Melaki and the other pupils in Lemmel's Principal's Club weren't just "making posters of historical sites and stuff." With the help of students and staffers from Goucher College, this group of kids was helping me revisit my beloved West Baltimore.

In front of Shawnece lay a picture of the Billie Holiday statue that stands at the corner of Pennsylvania and Lafayette avenues. There was another picture of the front of the YMCA on Druid Hill Avenue and one of two statues within a housing project on McCulloh Street. Those would go in the collage. There was another black-and-white photo of the marquee of the Royal Theater that must have been taken sometime in the 1930s or 1940s.

"Fats Waller In Person," the marquee announced. That picture was too rare, too precious, to be cut up and put on a collage. Instead, one of the Lemmel or Goucher students drew a likeness of it and pasted it with the other photos on the same paper.

Shawnece had only been talking to me a few minutes, but, with the picture of the Royal, she was already taking me back. I thought of the movies I had seen there, and of the two times my father took me, my two older sisters and my brother Michael to the live stage shows that made the Royal famous. The Impressions were featured in one show, and white rocker Jerry Lee Lewis, thumping out blues notes on a piano, kicking the seat from behind him and playing on one knee, in the other.

"Who was that white guy?" I asked after leaving in what must be my most vivid Royal memory. I wondered if I could explain to Shawnece what the Royal once meant to black folks in Baltimore.

"Do you know what the Royal was?" I asked.

"For over 30 years, it provided entertainment for ... " she started to answer.

"No," I interrupted in what I hoped was not too rude a tone. "Don't read the caption. I want you to tell me what it was." She hesitated, as if not quite sure what I wanted. I tried to make an analogy and pursued a line of questioning that revealed her favorite music artists are Ja Rule and some dreadful creation named Lil' Romeo.

"Years ago," I explained, "the Royal was the only place you could've seen Ja Rule and Lil' Romeo."

Shawnece and I chatted a little more before she started her work. Before I left for another part of the room, she presented me with a gift: a GREAT button (for Gang Resistance, Education and Training) that was given to her by a police officer.

In another part of the room Melaki and sixth-grader Angelina Williams, 11, were hunched over a computer, putting the finishing touches on the invitation that will be sent to parents, other family members and friends. The Lemmel pupils and Goucher students are creating the collages for posting on a Web site that will take viewers on a virtual tour of old West Baltimore. But the Lemmel community will see the finished product first.

Melaki climbed - literally, from behind - into the chair to take his turn at the computer keyboard. He pecked away using the one-finger method, confessing that he'd forgotten how to type. Angelina kibitzed, trying to help him. Finally, in exaggerated frustration, Melaki thrust the copy sheet at her and said "Just say the letters!"

Angelina was unfazed by the fake brusqueness.

"I'm glad I'm here to help him," she announced. The pair exchanged friendly gibes a bit more until Melaki reminded Angelina that they couldn't get too out of hand: A member of the media was present.

Sharp kid, this Melaki.

Jennifer Bess is a Goucher English professor working on the project with 10 Goucher students in what is part of an interdisciplinary class at the college. Each student from the class has a different major. Dean Gail Edwards and Leslie Harris of Goucher's informational technology department, along with three other faculty members, round out the staff involved in the project.

On April 30, about 6 p.m., Bess promised, the Goucher students and staff, assisted by Melaki, Shawnece, Angelina and seven other Lemmel pupils, will present the Web site's contents to the entire school. We old-school West Baltimoreans owe these Lemmel little ones some thanks, for serving up a slice of the West Baltimore we once knew.

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