Below the fireworks lies rich history of immigration

July 02, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

PAUSE FOR a moment, fellow celebrants. As you gather by the tens of thousands Sunday around Baltimore's Inner Harbor, with Fourth of July fireworks electrifying the nighttime sky, pause to consider what's below the lights: the town's own history, and some big-hearted efforts to preserve it while we still have memory.

In Locust Point, just south of the fireworks, nearly a million people arrived here around 1900 in search of the American dream. They came mostly from Europe, and they landed down by the tip of Fort Avenue, near Fort McHenry, in numbers greater than any port of entry in America except New York's Ellis Island.

And in Fells Point, just east of the fireworks, many arrived a century before that at the foot of Broadway. Some came from Africa, against their will, and they wore chains as they emerged from ships' crowded and stinking holds.

In moments such as this, as the nation marks its birth, Ron Zimmerman and Ellen von Karajan can practically hear the voices of the newly arrived over the crackle of fireworks. Some are filled with hope; others, despair. All have been muted over the passing years.

For nearly a decade, Zimmerman, a longtime South Baltimore Realtor who founded the Baltimore Immigration Project, has been trying to piece together an immigration museum here to tell the stories. Lately, he's linked hands with von Karajan, executive director of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fell's Point.

"It's a story that's been hidden under the covers for a long time," von Karajan said this week. "But we're beginning to see some wonderful things happening."

"Slowly, it's coming together," Zimmerman said. He sounded a little weary after nine years of effort. But he and von Karajan had some pretty hopeful news to report - including, later this year, a drive to raise $5 million to construct an Immigration Gateway Pavilion building on land donated at Locust Point's Tide Point by developer C. William Struever, who is also donating $300,000 to the project.

"Our history," Struever said yesterday, "is the defining character of our cities. It gives you a sense of place. We're all immigrants. This isn't about buildings. This is a celebration of our diversity - and a reminder of it every time we think these `new' people are somehow different from the rest of us."

Last winter, Zimmerman and von Karajan met with state legislators about funds for the museum.

"We explained this isn't like most museums," Zimmerman said. "It's not about one particular group, it's about all of us. I think they found that appealing."

Two weeks ago, von Karajan went to Washington and spoke to a congressional subcommittee on government reform about the project. Rep. Elijah Cummings is a ranking member. Von Karajan didn't talk about finances. She talked about preserving history.

"All that we value about being American, we owe to those who came here to become citizens," von Karajan said. "Over a million of our forefathers and mothers first set foot on American soil in Baltimore. Yet there is not so much as a single historic marker to commemorate those who chose this place as the gateway to their new life in America."

But it's not all sentimental stuff; the aim is to tell history as it really happened.

"Beginning in 1706, and continuing through the early 19th century," said von Karajan, "the city served as a leading site for the importation of African slaves [until] the slave trade was legally abolished in 1808. ... For European migrants, it was Fort McHenry, rather than the Statue of Liberty, that welcomed them to their new home."

Among those supporting the project is Parker Pennington, a senior project designer with Xibitz Inc., a local exhibiting firm. In the spring issue of the Baltimore City Historical Society newsletter, Pennington wrote of the museum project:

"Honoring the memory and courage of every immigrant who first touched American soil in Baltimore" is important. "Today, there are tens of millions of Americans who could trace their roots to a Baltimore dock."

But beyond altruism, said Pennington, there is also this: "Such personal connections, along with the city's strong historic ties to major ports of embarkation," make the museum project "a major potential generator of national and international tourism and economic development activity."

That's one more notion to ponder as the fireworks blaze over Locust Point and Fells Point, and all the neighborhoods beyond.

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