Baltimore African American Commission honors Billie Holiday sculptor

The Baltimore African American Commission honored the sculptor of the Billie Holiday monument.

The Baltimore African American Commission honored local sculptor James Earl Reid on Sunday at its inaugural fundraiser, in hopes the choice would boost recognition of the year-old organization.

The commission advocates for the preservation of African-American historic sites in the city and for small, black-owned businesses. Director Louis C. Fields criticized last year the decision to tear down the "Freedom House," a rowhouse in Upton where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt and Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., among others, attended meetings as part of the civil rights movement.

"The commission was born out of a need to help the city of Baltimore, city and government policymakers see that there's parts of our city and places in our city that — I don't want to say who's to blame — but these places have fallen behind much of Baltimore," Fields said. "So the commission's job is to look at those facts and those figures and those places and say to the city of Baltimore, 'We have advocates that are willing to work with the city to find resources to make the outer harbor have the same kind of appeal to residents and tourists as the Inner Harbor does.'"

Fields said the fundraiser was intended to give the organization a small pot of money for letterhead, stationery and event costs.

In Baltimore, Reid is known for creating the sculpture of jazz legend Billie Holiday at the corner of Pennsylvania and West Lafayette avenues. The sculpture, commissioned by the city and unveiled in 1985, depicts the former Baltimorean singing.

Relief panels that Reid intended to grace the sides of the monument were added in 2009. The panels depict a black man who has been lynched — a reference to Holiday's signature song "Strange Fruit" — and a crow eating a gardenia, the flower she customarily wore in her hair, an allusion to Jim Crow racism.

In 1985, Reid created a Nativity sculpture for a Christmas pageant in Washington that depicted a homeless family with an infant huddled over a steam grate. The Community for Creative Non-Violence, which commissioned the sculpture, filed a copyright claim on the sculpture, which Reid challenged. The case went to the Supreme Court, where the court ruled that Reid held the copyright.

Fields called Reid an "unsung hero."

"In Baltimore we love our historical figures — particularly those that are dead," Fields said. "In this case, we have an educator, an activist, an artist of sculpture who is still alive and still with us. I think he's been underappreciated in Baltimore. He has not had that kind of recognition."

Fields said he often brings tour groups to the Billie Holiday statute.

"First of all, they are really surprised that there's a monument to Billie Holiday in Baltimore," he said. "They're in astonishment that it's done by an African-American.

"Then they look at the monument itself."

Reid said the work the commission is doing is "necessary."

"The African American Commission evolved out of not getting any fair play or attention to the necessity of maintaining our history and culture," Reid said. "And actually bringing it to the forefront for others who come to the city of Baltimore. We're sort of put to the back side, and we need to come to the front side."

Edna Lawrence, the commission's secretary, said the organization's advocacy makes it important.

"It's the little man that's missed," she said. "We're going to be negotiating at the bigger table to see that no one's missed."

cwells@baltsun.com

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