Aberdeen woman stops city from demolishing 'our historic home'

Aberdeen resident and longtime civil rights activist Janice Grant made a successful last-ditch effort to stop the city from demolishing her family's 84-year-old house, which she says is historically significant.

Grant rounded up supporters and got a court injunction to stop the demolition, just as a bulldozer was set to tear down the home, in the 400 block of Edmund Street, early Monday morning.

The injunction is the latest round in a more than decade-long battle between Grant and the City of Aberdeen over the house, which has been vacant for years and which city officials say poses a public safety risk.

Built in 1930, the home gained prominence when Grant's aunt, who lived there during the Great Depression, helped feed and care for the area's poor and homeless people.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt stopped by the home on her way to visit Aberdeen Proving Ground, according to Grant.

In addition, "during the Civil Rights era, the home was used by the NAACP for organizing meetings," Grant's attorney Aisha Braveboy, a state delegate from Prince George's County, said. "That is really significant because you know in Maryland, we have an unfortunate history of slavery and lynching."

"This home has been pretty significant over the last century," Braveboy said.

Long battle

Grant, 80, and her husband, Woodrow, 76, don't live in the house, which the City of Aberdeen first condemned in 2004 and then relented on demolishing when the Grants said they were going to renovate the structure to house Christian missionaries, according to a Baltimore Sun story from December 2004.

Since then, the two sides have gone back and forth over the property. In November, according to a document obtained from the city Monday, the city's Unsafe Building Committee ruled the house was in violation of the city code "because it is unsafe, in danger of collapse and is unfit for human habitation." Committee members are listed as Henry Trabert, the police chief, City Manager Douglas Miller and Planning and Community Development Director Phyllis Grover.

The Grants were given until March 16 to complete significant improvements to the structure, or the city would tear it down and place a lien on the property "for expenses incurred," according to the document.

Grant appeared before the panel on Nov. 14, 2013, and "recounted some of her efforts to rehabilitate the structure," according to the document. She also brought in a local contractor, who "acknowledged that the structure was in danger of collapse but that he could make the existing framework safe for about $50,000. He further offered to fully restore the structure and that such cost would be $400,000.

In a dramatic scene Monday morning, Baltimore activist the Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon Sr., president of the Baltimore chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and his wife, Sherelle, held the bulldozer crew at bay, threatening to sue the city, until Trabert got word from Harford County Circuit Court Judge William Carr informing him of the injunction to halt the demolition.

Trabert arrived on the scene to "keep the peace" and ensure everyone's safety, he said.

Witherspoon, a church minister, said the building might be one of the oldest houses in the immediate area.

"This is the county's history, too," he noted.

'Surround...lock arms'

Grant, who has been active in the civil rights movement locally and nationally, including taking part in the 1963 March on Washington, had sent a mass e-mail asking her supporters "to surround the house and lock arms" until Woodrow Grant could tell them from Bel Air the injunction was filed.

"Save our black history and our historic home," Grant asked in the e-mail.

On Monday morning, police and the bulldozer arrived just as Grant left briefly to settle more legal matters about the house, shortly before 8 a.m.

A little after 8 a.m., Carr issued the temporary restraining order, granted preliminary injunctive relief and set a hearing for April 24, Braveboy said.

"We had to prove that irreparable harm was happening to my client," Braveboy said later that morning.

The Grants have been working to get the home formally recognized as a historic property, Maryanna Skowronski, director of the Historical Society of Harford County, said Monday.

Aberdeen Public Works Director Matt Lapinsky declined to comment on the details of the case Monday.

"It falls under the city of Aberdeen code as an unsafe structure," said Lapinsky, who represented the city during the Nov. 14 Unsafe Building Committee hearing.

The decision to demolish a property "is a long, drawn-out process... and we exhausted that," Lapinsky explained, adding he had just learned of the order to stop demolition Monday.

"We don't have a clue what this injunction is about and we are just going from there," he added.

Will keep fighting

Grant, for her part, said she is determined to keep fighting for her family's house and what she said is a key part of local history. She mentioned she wants to renovate the house to provide a home for homeless female veterans and their children.

"My mother lived there when she was young. She and Pop started the Aberdeen Bible Church. Great-grandfather James East lived there for a short period and he bought the land for the first black cemetery in Newport News, Virginia, on Shell Road. He is buried there and there is a monument in his honor with his name and is in his honor," Grant said in her e-mail.

A driver yelled something from a car as it zoomed past Grant, the Witherspoons and Harford County NAACP Branch President Zilpha Smith while they stood by the home.

"Did you hear that? They said, 'Tear it down,'" Witherspoon exclaimed, shaking his head.

Grant was unfazed, saying with a smile: "Well, that's all right."

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