Remembering when life was sweet in Sugar Hill

Neighborhood: Former residents of the famed African-American enclave recall better times in the now-decaying neighborhood.

July 12, 2004|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

The distressing sight of boarded-up rowhouses along Druid Hill Avenue, between Baltimore's biggest park and North Avenue, makes it hard to believe that this decayed neighborhood was once home for many of the city's most successful African-American strivers.

From the 1920s until the late 1940s, this was the famed Sugar Hill, the namesake of a similarly upscale part of Harlem. Prominent lawyers and educators lived in the modest, cramped two-story rowhouses near Druid Hill Park; so did waiters, bell captains and postal workers.

At the time of strict residential segregation, this was as far uptown as blacks were allowed. Sugar Hill's attraction was enhanced by its proximity to the fashionable white neighborhoods along Eutaw Place and easy access to several streetcar lines.

The family of Thurgood Marshall occupied a McCulloh Street home briefly. One of the future Supreme Court justice's cousins, Charles T. Burns, operated a corner grocery and went on to build the nation's biggest black-owned supermarket chain, Super Pride, which is no longer in business.

"We had a very, very solid community. We survived on love," remembers Bernardine Johnson, 75.

After years of living elsewhere, she has moved back to the McCulloh Street house her father purchased in 1920, becoming the second black family to settle in the area.

He was a teacher who walked several miles to and from Dunbar High School in East Baltimore daily in order to save the streetcar fare for the needs of his wife and six children.

That's why the house has "great sentimental value because I know the sacrifices my parents made to make sure we did have a home," said Johnson, who has been a music teacher for four decades.

Johnson is among a rapidly shrinking circle of Sugar Hill old-timers, who have scattered throughout the metropolitan area but still stay in touch informally and hold occasional reunions.

Old-timers look back to Sugar Hill through distinctly rose-colored glasses.

"Sugar Hill was the greatest," Charlotte M. Perry, 80, a retired teacher, exclaimed on her porch in Rosemont. "Lord, it was so nice."

A cousin of Thurgood Marshall, Perry recalled summers in Druid Hill Park. If segregated tennis courts and swimming pool were once hurtful, time seems to have healed the wounds.

What she remembers is a cohesive neighborhood where all the strivers knew one another, where diligent parents instilled a sense of purpose in their well-mannered children and no one was afraid.

Celebrated residents

Sugar Hill included the 2300 and 2400 blocks of Madison Ave. and the blocks of McCulloh Street and Druid Hill Avenue from North Avenue to Druid Hill Park. During its glory days, its most celebrated residents were Rivers Chambers and Bailey Conaway.

Chambers was the city's best-known bandleader. While he often played at Pennsylvania Avenue's legendary Royal Theater, his folksy jazz orchestra was also a must-have fixture at leading white society events from the 1920s until his death in 1957.

Conaway was the city's finest caterer. He had a lock on the Bachelors Cotillon, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra events and tony affairs from Guilford to Green Spring Valley in the 1920s and 1930s.

"I can remember when they would come down from a job," Johnson said of Conaway's waiters parading on McCulloh Street. "They were all dressed in black suits, and they had white shirts and bow ties, and they each carried a black box. And you know what was in those boxes? It was food that was left over that they were taking to their families."

Somewhat later, another entrepreneur left his mark on Sugar Hill,

He was William L. Adams, a newcomer from North Carolina, He fell in love with a teacher, Victorine Quille, whose father was a chauffeur and mother a beautician on McCulloh Street. After they married, Adams opened Little Willie's Tavern at Whitelock Street and Druid Hill Avenue, became a big operator of illegal lotteries and eventually a millionaire many times over.

Erstwhile neighbors remember how tongues wagged when Adams courted Quille. The neighborhood had more to talk about after someone threw a hand grenade into the tavern in what was later described as an out-of-town gangster's attempt to muscle in on Adams' lucrative numbers racket.

Among Adams' close friends was boxer Joe Louis. Whenever the "Brown Bomber" was in town, he would visit Adams' tavern in Sugar Hill.

"We could go up to him and talk to him," remembers William L. Morton, 78, who lived on Druid Hill Avenue and is now retired from a moving company that his grandfather started some 120 years ago.

During the peak of its popularity, Sugar Hill outranked Druid Hill Avenue, south of North Avenue, which was the other prestigious residential area for successful blacks, according to James Crockett, a veteran real estate broker.

Glory years end

The glory years ended soon after World War II, when opportunities for blacks began opening up.

In 1949, soon after one-way traffic turned once-sedate Druid Hill Avenue and McCulloh Street into noisy thoroughfares, the Adamses moved from above the tavern to Hanlon Park, near Lake Ashburton. (They now live at Roland Park Place, a retirement community).

By the late 1960s, most other successful Sugar Hill residents had departed, buying homes in previously white neighborhoods. As they left, a downward spiral began as renters replaced homeowners.

Today, Little Willie's Tavern has been long boarded-up. And while homebuyers and investors have rediscovered nearby Reservoir Hill, the smaller houses of Sugar Hill have failed to ignite a similar interest.

Sugar Hill lives in the memories of old-timers as something of a magical place, though. Morton summed it up at his Upper Park Heights condominium.

"It was a beautiful, beautiful neighborhood," he said.

"Yes, it was," seconded his wife, Bettye, who grew up on McCulloh Street.

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