Debating the next phase in the life of a civil rights site

Developer says bringing new life to bleak block is best homage

March 12, 2011|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

At 46, developer Harold Dawson Jr. is young enough that sitting at a lunch counter was not a civil right that he had to fight for, but a battle already won by his parents' generation.

But the developer, who is black, says the victory is why he needs to move forward with plans to rebuild the blighted block on downtown Baltimore's west side where one such lunch counter sit-in took place. Rather than destroying the legacy of the 1955 protest, as some have argued, Dawson says the project will honor it by bringing new life to the area.

"This is why those students were sitting at that counter," Dawson said on the phone from Atlanta, where he is based. "Not just for us to sit and eat at that counter, not just to own the counter, but the entire block."

It might seem a little corporate-speakish, tearing something down to preserve its memory, but Dawson expects to offer a revised proposal soon that calls for saving at least part of the former Read's drugstore at Howard and Lexington streets.

Initially, plans had called for razing the entire building, where a group of black college students sat at the counter, which along with other protests soon prompted the owners to change their policy of serving only whites.

While Dawson declined Friday to offer more specifics of his new proposal, officials with his company have been meeting with some of those trying to preserve the building.

While he predicts that not all the critics will be happy with the revision, Dawson said he's done his best to salvage what he can of the deteriorated building and still build a $150 million development that will bring jobs, housing and retail to a neglected part of town.

Empty for years, the former Read's long ago lost most traces of its former self, the flagship of a local drugstore chain whose sign encouraged customers to "Run Right to Read's."

That the sign eventually came to address everyone, not just whites, remains a touchstone for longtime Baltimoreans.

University of Maryland law professor Larry Gibson, for example, remembers the indignities of growing up in the segregated Baltimore of the 1940s and '50s, when blacks weren't allowed to try clothes on in stores or return them if they turned out not to fit. When stores like Read's integrated their lunch counters, he says with a rueful laugh, "We were free, we had overcome.

"There was a place, finally, we could literally run to," said Gibson. He has opposed the redevelopment plan.

That Dawson is on the other side of this fight is not something he would have chosen. The company's own legacy in the civil rights struggle is, in fact, a point of pride for him, and a personal one at that: The founder of the Dawson Co. is his father and namesake, who fought to bring down a 1960s-era wall that segregated blacks and whites in their native Atlanta.

Company Chairman Howard Dawson Sr., now sidelined by poor health, rose from a public housing project to become an influential real estate agent and then developer in Atlanta. He bought and developed residential properties on the white side of the "Peyton Wall," a roadblock that was erected in 1962 to keep blacks out. It eventually was taken down by court order.

Although Harold Dawson Jr. was born after the Peyton Wall controversy, he came of age among the remnants of segregation and those who would defend it. He remembers drinking fountains in downtown Atlanta that still bore the whites-only signs, and picnics at Stone Mountain, with its carving honoring Confederate heroes that was a favored site for Klan rallies.

"It's what we grew up with," Dawson said.

The Dawson Co. became the lead developer of Lexington Square, also known as the "Superblock," the west-side parcel that has long been targeted for redevelopment, about four years ago.

Dawson officials said they were somewhat blindsided by the revelation last year that there had been a sit-in on the site, saying they had researched the buildings' histories and found no reference to such an event in city or state archives. Gibson said the sit-in had been reported at the time and since, but not in the context of the Superblock redevelopment because the original renewal plans called for preserving historic corner buildings such as the old Read's.

Dawson said he might not be from Baltimore, but he feels a connection nonetheless to those whose sit-ins were part of the same battle that his father fought in his own town.

"We're the sons and daughters of these people," he said.

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