`Forced out' in Frederick

As the city changes, residents of a black community fear their history will be lost

October 30, 2006|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,Sun reporter

FREDERICK -- Thomas Hill never wanted to leave West All Saints Street. He was born and raised on the byway when it was the thriving commercial and cultural hub of the black community, and it is where, for 13 years, he operated a three-chair barbershop.

But a developer purchased the building where Hill cut hair to convert it to condominiums, and Hill couldn't afford the rent increase. So Hill, whom everyone knows as "Frosty," took his old-fashioned barber chairs and boxing photographs and moved into a nondescript office building a short drive away.

"I never thought I'd see the day," said Hill, 61, looking glum under a fedora as a radio burbled in the background. His barbershop was empty.

The city of Frederick has grown, cleaned up and poured money into downtown revitalization. Newcomers with big incomes have arrived, and property values have soared.

Yet, in places such as West All Saints Street, many people resent the changes. As rents rose and whites settled here, longtime businesses shut their doors. African-Americans with roots going back generations can no longer afford to stay.

The 1 1/2 -block stretch is still home to two black churches, two barbershops, an Elks Lodge and a few other clubs and businesses, but the days when it was a proud, bustling black neighborhood are gone. Old-timers shake their heads as they gaze down the street with its brick sidewalks, crooked doorways and rowhouses painted shades of cream and light blue. They use phrases such as "forced out" to describe what has happened and worry that their history will be forgotten.

"I'm very, very sad, and I'm hurt [that] things are like they are now," said Betty Bowie, a stern, gray-haired woman in her 70s. She stood outside the brick rowhouse she bought in 1979 for $33,000 and, lips pursed, flicked an outstretched finger at the homes across the street.

"That's white, white, white," she said of the new residents. She fears that one day her church will pull up and leave, and that no blacks will remain on the street that was once all theirs.

"We have gone one foot up and 18 feet back," she said.

Facts of life

Segregation was a fact of life in Frederick through much of the 1950s, and at one time, all the blacks in town were confined to homes on a few streets, said Henry "Sandy" Brown III, 66, a retired aluminum plant supervisor. He had swung by the neighborhood to check on his elderly father and aunt, and was walking along West All Saints reminiscing.

No one longs for the return of segregation, but the practice fostered a tight-knit community. Blacks from around the region would buy groceries, get haircuts, have their shoes fixed, go dancing or see the dentist here. In the 1920s and earlier, there was a black hospital, a black high school and a black library.

Brown strolled past the brick home where his family lived above a beauty parlor and pointed to the sites of the old tailor shop and his uncle's long-gone clothing store. He nodded toward what was once a lunch counter, fish market and grocery store, and to the house on the corner where Dr. Ulysses Grant Bourne, the neighborhood physician, practiced medicine until 1953. Bourne, who founded the hospital on the other end of the street, paid for Brown's father's college education.

Whites seldom ventured on the street then, and those driving through en route to the bus station would hurry to lock their car doors. "Click, click, click!" Brown said.

"They used to call it a ghetto, but I never considered it a ghetto," said Hill. "Older folks kept it in order." They weren't afraid to discipline their neighbors' children, and "your teachers were just like your mama."

He rubbed his forehead with slender fingers. "Hindsight and foresight is just ... "

What is happening on West All Saints Street -- and the concurrent transformation of the city and county -- is a complicated affair. The number of blacks living in Frederick grew from 1990 to 2000, when blacks made up almost 15 percent of the city's population, according to the census. The 2005 American Community Survey shows that Frederick County's black population, as well as its population overall, continues to swell.

While some blacks are chasing affordable housing in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and elsewhere, others are moving to Frederick. The number of high-earning blacks and whites in the city increased significantly from 1990 to 2000, the census shows.

Lost connections

"It's not the loss of the black community," said Guy Djoken, president of the Frederick chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, "but the loss of those who are connected to this place, those who spent their whole lives here and didn't want to leave."

Djoken moved to Hagerstown in 2004 because he was unable to afford a home in Frederick, where he had lived for a decade. "Oh, you too?" other blacks often ask him.

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