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Few show up to discuss memorial to Read's civil rights site

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While members of the public had much to say when plans were announced to raze Read's drugstore in Baltimore — the site of pioneering civil rights sit-ins by Morgan State students — few stepped forward Saturday to discuss ways to commemorate the protests after much of the building is torn down.

A forum at Union Baptist Church to brainstorm for ideas drew just three city residents, one of whom berated the city-appointed committee in charge for failing to get the word out about the meeting.

"Nobody I know has known anything about it," Gwen Wynn announced to the 13 committee members in attendance.

The poor turnout was in sharp contrast to the outcry earlier this year over a proposed demolition of the structure as part of the $150 million Lexington Square redevelopment project on the west side of downtown. Civil rights leaders and preservation advocates demanded a halt to the venture, and eventually secured a promise from developers to preserve a portion of the city-owned building and to memorializethe historic events that occurred there, which led to Saturday's session.

In the early 1950s, Morgan students staged sit-ins at the Read's lunch counter over its segregationist policies, prompting the company to begin serving black patrons in 1955. The little-known local efforts predate similar actions around the country.

Morgan unveiled an exhibition this month chronicling its leadership in the civil rights movement.

"Long before the 'Greensboro Four' made their famous protest in North Carolina in 1960 [at a Woolworth's lunch counter], Morgan students launched the U.S. Sit-In Movement with demonstrations at segregated restaurants near their campus in Baltimore City," officials note in a brochure.

The university's exhibition includes a model of the Read's lunch counter, along with three original stools. The store itself has long been vacant and in decay, with portions of the ceiling giving way.

Brian Greenan, who was hired by the city to oversee the west-side revitalization, said Saturday that the Lexington Square endeavor "is still alive," though he declined to discuss the stages of development.

He described the Read's commemoration as being "on the punch list of things that had to get knocked out" in order to advance the project, which includes plans for fresh retail and residential sites and the potential for thousands of new jobs.

Greenan and M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., are nonvoting members of the Read's commemoration committee. Thirteen members attended the forum Saturday, outnumbering citizen attendees by more than four to one.

"We don't have a lot of people here today," Michelle Harris Bondima, the group's facilitator, acknowledged, adding that members "want everyone in the community to have a say."

Recommendations offered so far from city residents — many through informal conversations with committee members — range from simple signs to a fully staffed visitor center offering classes on Baltimore's role in the civil rights movement.

The commemoration does not have to be tied to the physical Read's location, said LaToya Staten, a committee member representing the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore and could be anything from an event to a piece of art.

Walter R. Dean Jr., a longtime college professor and city resident, urged the committee to keep its design recommendations uncomplicated, suggesting a sign or plaque reading, "This is where the movement started," or something similar.

"Anything more elaborate than that, the city will not be able to fund it," said Dean, who retired from Baltimore City Community College in 2010.

Dean was a Morgan student in the late 1950s and early 1960s, participating in civil rights protests throughout the city. He was arrested during a sit-in at the Hecht-May Co. store in 1960, after the manager refused to serve black dining patrons. The incident prompted other department stores in the city to desegregate.

The committee chairman, the Rev. Al Hathaway, pastor of Union Baptist Church, said the group would not consider cost in its recommendations, saying that was for others — namely the city and developers — to worry about.

The committee plans to meet Dec. 5 to discuss recommendations and a reporting strategy. Members said they will accept community ideas via email (reads.1955@gmail.com) through Dec. 3.

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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