Club of Baltimore has eye on investing

African-American elite share ideas, camaraderie

December 30, 2006|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

They were a group of prominent African-American educators - deans of Morgan State College and city schools administrators - pillars of their community searching for advice on how to grow their meager savings.

In 1931, in the face of the Great Depression and segregation that kept blacks virtually shut out of Baltimore's mainstream banks and investment houses, the men stepped out on their own, pooled their money and founded an elite investment club.

Seventy-five years later, the Club of Baltimore, as it is simply known, still meets in all its tradition and regalia. It's a place where men of stature come to discuss the ins and outs of the stock market and the news of the day, sharing in a spirit of camaraderie that has endured three generations. Members think it might be among the oldest such groups in the nation.

Over the years, 49 men have held membership in the club, including such notables as elder statesman Raymond V. Haysbert, the former chief executive of Parks Sausage Co., and Arnold Williams, chairman of the Baltimore Development Corp.

For most, it's a lifelong affiliation. Occasionally members choose to leave the club (and when they do, their assets are cashed out), but many remain until death, upon which their holdings are transferred to their wives or other beneficiaries.

With membership by invitation only and capped at 15, the club has maintained a measure of exclusivity, with bonds between members that are often tighter than any fraternity.

"I think the most important thing about this group is our intelligence, trust, integrity and friendship," says Charles G. Tildon Jr., 80, a retired city schools administrator and member since 1969.

Each month, the men in suits filter in for their regular dinner meeting, this time gathering in a private room at the status-conscious Crossroads Restaurant at Cross Keys in North Baltimore.

As they greet each other with hearty handshakes, club president Cecil Bray - an imposing 71-year-old with a booming voice - announces his entrance with "Good evening, gentlemen."

The men save the market chat for later. First on the agenda are rounds of merlot and martinis and, as Bray calls it, "solving the problems of the world."

The banter ranges from Baltimore's arcane system of ground rents - get rid of 'em - to gentrification in the city, with general agreement that development must include affordable housing so low-income people are not displaced.

"We're pricing a lot of people out of a decent place to live," says James Haynes, a soft-spoken Morgan State University administrator who also owns rental property throughout the city.

"Hopkins is taking over all of the east side of Baltimore," chimes in Earl Kidwell, an ophthalmologist from Howard County. "It's incredible."

"And once it's all built up, the majority of people aren't going to be able to afford to come back in there," Haynes concludes.

Ranging from octogenarians to thirty-somethings, members include attorneys, entrepreneurs, retired educators and civic leaders.

"We've got some very strong personalities," says Bray, a pastor and retired Army colonel. "They have an opinion about everything."

The club has roots in segregation-era social organizations, in which members would combine assets to start a business or offer as charity, says Charles M. Christian, distinguished professor at Coppin State University. But Christian says he has never heard of an enduring group with the central purpose of generating wealth for members.

"This group, being very steeply focused on business and investment and making money, that is unusual," he says. "It's quite remarkable."

The 12 founders started out by accumulating just $5 per person per month. After a while, they invested the cash in a common stock portfolio, and eventually they launched a loan fund, where members can borrow up to half of their assets without the penalties of sky-high interest rates.

"I think it's very important to let people know that black people were interested in being part of the economic structure of the country more than 75 years ago, during segregation," says Haynes, the Morgan State administrator. "When I learned it had been 75 years, my first thought was, `Wow, we had that kind of discretionary capital back then?'"

The club has helped members secure modest nest eggs, but it has produced no millionaires, says Tildon. The club's chosen stocks have produced "conservative appreciation."

"We try to be responsible, not risky," he says. "That's not our style."

The names of the blue chips - and just how much they're worth - are a closely guarded secret among members.

Tildon, who will gleefully chat for hours about the club's history and noteworthy members, becomes tightlipped when conversation turns to its finances. At a recent meeting, members wrote checks for their monthly dues but carefully shielded their checkbooks from the eyes of a reporter.

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