Annapolis is working to preserve the legacy of a black community

Clay Street leads city back into its history

August 30, 2006|By Nia-Malika Henderson | Nia-Malika Henderson,sun reporter

The small, one-story house at the corner of West Washington and Monument streets in downtown Annapolis is easy to miss. Yet the beige stucco house with brown roof and red door is not just any house.

It is, according to a local history buff, one of the most significant structures in the city's Clay Street neighborhood.

On his way to becoming a prominent African-American businessman and city alderman, Wiley H. Bates purchased the property - his first - in the late 1800s. Bates later sold the house to Richard King, Anne Arundel County's first black lawyer. An all-black high school was named for Bates in the 1930s.

The city will mark little-known sites such as King's humble home and commemorate stories such as his as part of an effort to detail the vibrant history of Clay Street, a historically black community blocks from the State House. Work on the project began in 2002 but stalled.

The effort is being revived with the help of historians and residents who see it as a long-overdue way of recognizing a community that has struggled with urban problems but retains pride in its past.

With a $29,000 Community Legacy grant, the city will demarcate a neighborhood gateway at West Washington and West streets and highlight other significant locations.

The city hopes to place the gateway in November. A design proposal is expected as early as this week.

"For the whole city it will finally mean the definition of a very distinctive area," said Karen Engelke, the city's special projects coordinator. "This will be a public statement of significance."

It will be the culmination of work that Janice Hayes-Williams, a local historian and writer, began about two years ago.

Hayes-Williams pieced together the Clay Street community's history by collecting residents' stories and photographs, and poring over old maps and property and voting records.

"There's a sense of loss looking at what was," she said. "What about what is and what can be?"

Hayes-Williams heard about Pearl Bailey's stay in the 1940s at the Washington Hotel, where the singer earned about $20 a week performing. She also heard about fraternal organizations, such as Universal Masonic Lodge No. 14, which was formed in 1864. The brick building still stands on Clay Street.

Historian Joseph F. Meany will distill Hayes-Williams' research into a brief narrative.

On a recent walking tour of the neighborhood, Meany said taverns, schools and churches were the communities' anchors.

For the Clay Street neighborhood - often called the old 4th Ward - there was Susie's Tea Room, the Stanton Colored School, and Asbury United Methodist Church.

There was also the Royal Flush Club, established in 1926 at Clay and Obery streets, where men such as Lewis Carter played pitty-pat, a card game.

"We had more fun than people do now," Carter, 79, said.

Along Washington and Clay streets - what Meany called the spines of the community - Hayes-Williams pointed out the landmark sites.

"Here's Asbury looming over the neighborhood," Hayes-Williams said as she looked at a street map from 1921. "Asbury's purpose was to overlook and create the neighborhood that was to come. By 1940, this place is booming. There are saloons, restaurants, nightclubs, stores."

"Yeah, it must have been something," Meany said.

The neighborhood that would evolve in Asbury's shadow - after slavery, through the Roaring '20s, Jazzy '40s and today - is a tribute to the determination and commitment of blacks to educate and uplift but also reflects the failure of urban renewal, Hayes-Williams said.

On West Washington, Hayes-Williams said, both legacies are clear.

There is the towering concrete parking garage built in the 1970s that nearly walls the community off from much of Calvert Street.

However, not far away, a community center is located on the site of the Stanton Colored School, which opened in October 1865, a year after slavery ended in Maryland.

There, in a re-created classroom, hang dozens of old photos of residents who made the best of difficult and segregated times.

There are teachers - the women to marry, Hayes-Williams called them - in peep-toe heels, black dresses, hats and furs. Even a trip to Carr's Beach - an all-black resort near Annapolis - could call for a hat and pearls.

Black life - religious and social - was a world apart from white life.

But segregation, though stifling, often created opportunity out of sheer necessity.

"When you see the pictures, you get it," Hayes-Williams said. "The people in the community were very busy and they were busy taking care of their community. It was a community built on brotherhood. When you have segregation, all you have is your community."

Beatrice P. Smith, 85, remembers it that way. Smith moved to Clay Street with her family when she was about 6. She remembers spending afternoons sitting on the porch looking out at College Creek as Naval Academy midshipmen rowed along.

Lily and Anthony Brown lived in the house on the corner, before Obery Court, a public housing community, went up in the 1950s, she said.

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