By John Majors
3:21 PM EDT, April 28, 2011
During this month's meeting of Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), I was stunned by a question asked of me as a representative of Lexington Square Partners and The Dawson Company — the lead developer for the redevelopment of Baltimore's west side Superblock — about our $150 million plan for the area.
"Do you consider this development to be selling out the black community?"
As an African-American, I found that question — asked by a commissioner who is not part of the African-American community — to be ironic (and some might say offensive), given the history, reputation and track record of the company leading the development project and given the efforts our team has made to recognize the history of the site.
The Dawson Company is a second-generation, African-American owned firm whose founder started in real estate by breaking the color barrier in Atlanta, selling homes in previously segregated neighborhoods. He went on to lead the national organization of state real estate commissioners — as well as the National Association of Real Estate Brokers. Further, the legacy of Harold Dawson, Sr. and The Dawson Company is one promoting national fair housing laws and of creating opportunities for black people in the real estate industry for over 50 years.
We began work on the Lexington Square project in 2006 after signing an agreement with the city of Baltimore. Since then, we have worked with the Maryland Historic Trust to identify and preserve historic buildings and facades. After nearly five years of work, a few months ago, we were informed of the sit-in that occurred at the Read's drugstore lunch counter — and we responded immediately.
Working with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, our team has agreed to a number of important steps to recognize the historical importance of Read's drugstore while creating the kinds of economic development and job opportunities that are so critical to furthering the racial progress that that we presume was the goal of that original sit-in.
Much of the media attention has focused on our commitment to preserve the exterior walls of the former Read's drugstore — the only pieces visible to the public for many years. Furthermore, we hired a preservation specialist to examine whether any components of historical relevance still exist on the interior. The answer, unfortunately, was no. There is no lunch counter in the building anymore, and the interior is in shambles from years of vacancy and neglect. (I encourage readers to view a video tour of the inside of the building on this newspaper's website.)
Our plans call for much more than just preserving the walls, including possible options like:
•An on-site exhibit to commemorate the sit-in;
•Commemorating the civil rights activities of Morgan State University students with an on-campus installation (though the school has not taken a position on our plans for the Read's building);
•Creating internship and co-op opportunities for black students to learn the real estate industry hands-on;
•Scholarships for area college students in real estate and development related fields;
•Classes and lectures celebrating the civil rights movement and the opportunities for today's generation;
•Creating more than 600 construction jobs, and more than 750 permanent jobs, which will actively recruit local and minority workers (as well as many additional jobs due to the economic "ripple effect");
•Job training for local and minority workers;
•New contract opportunities with high inclusion goals for minority construction contractors; and
•Creating investment opportunities for black financial groups
The next chapter in the civil rights movement is economic empowerment. Today, African-Americans are not fighting to simply sit down at a lunch counter and be served. We have the opportunity to own not just the lunch counter, but the entire store. In fact, we can own the entire building that the store occupies. We can own the construction company that builds the building and the financial groups that put investment dollars into the development.
We recognize that this progress is attributable to individuals like the Morgan students who took a stand at Read's over 50 years ago. They deserve to be honored — which is what we intend to do — and we owe them our respect.
Our plan both protects and honors the history of Read's drugstore and all that it means to the civil rights struggle, while creating the types of jobs, ownership opportunities and economic development that the civil rights struggle championed.
To directly answer the question about selling out the black community, we believe that no part of our plan can be construed or misinterpreted by anyone as selling out in any respect whatsoever.
Preservation and progress need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, if we were to lose sight of our responsibility to create economic empowerment opportunities in the areas where they are most needed, we would be selling out not only the history of African-Americans but also the future of the community.
John Majors is an executive vice president with the Dawson Company. His email is Johnmajors@thedawsoncompany.com.
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