"Betty," an employee of Speed's Beauty Shop, has lived in Turner Station for almost 50 years. (Reginal Thomas II/For City Paper)
Turner Station connects to everywhere. The more people I told that I was writing about this place, the more connections I discovered. On the tour, Mrs. Speed pointed out the childhood home of Kevin Clash, the original voice of "Sesame Street's" Elmo. Black astronaut Robert L. Curbeam Jr., former NFL player Calvin Hill, and former president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Kweisi Mfume are from here, too. When my cousin was at Morgan, she interned at Ransom's Boutique, a fancy dress shop at Towson Mall, and the owner was from Turner Station. When I finally read the book, I found out Henrietta Lacks' disabled daughter was sent to Crownsville State Hospital, the now-closed institution where many of my aunts worked when I was growing up. It also turned out that I know someone who is not only from Turner Station, but a relative of Henrietta Lacks. Her name is Erica Pack and she's about my age. Even though she was there in the late '80s and '90s, the Turner Station she describes isn't much different than the one that Mrs. Speed and Watkins talk about.
I first met Pack and her husband at Applebee's karaoke—my husband calls this quite lit suburban chain Crunk-a-bee's—near my house in White Marsh. We all became fast couple-friends. She's pretty with a round face and delicate doll-like features and looks much younger than 36. She and her husband are also deeply proud of where they come from—of their immediate families and their African ancestry. It's impossible to talk with her for any length of time without her holding out her phone and pulling up photos of her children, various cousins, parents, great-grand parents, and more.
We meet to talk about her life in Turner Station in her Parkville home. Pack says she lived in Turner Station until she was 9, and visits family members who still live there often.
"Growing up was pretty much picturesque. We didn't have a lot, but nobody knew that because you have all your family living around, my grandparents lived in walking distance, my mother's mother did too, so both sets of parents' families are from Turner Station so everybody was just around," she says.
A lot of Pack's memories are of nature: "My earliest memories are of the pond, weeping willow trees, which Turner Station had a lot [of], and being right off the water. My dad would take us to go crabbing, fishing, right off the water."
Pack says that she connects the community that she was a part of in Turner Station as something that pre-dates slavery.
"Earlier today I was listening to a lecture, he was talking about pretty much returning to our roots and community—so this whole lecture is on African rites of passage—but he was talking about the respect that we had for each other, how young people respected the elders and how men respected women. And he was saying you could see the bums, they be out there drinking and using foul language, but let a woman and a child walk by and they say 'excuse me ma'am,' That's how it was in Turner Station," she says. "We didn't call them bums, we called them winos, so there would be plenty of winos on the corner but we weren't afraid of them, it was always respect, it was always respect for the women, the children, they wouldn't curse around us, they wouldn't do anything unsightly. They had their brown paper bags, they had their drink, but they were very, very respectful."
Pack says safety in the tiny community was never an issue. Everyone looked out for one another.
"We felt complete safety. We had this man—Zeke the Freak is what he called himself—so as I got older I found out that Zeke had gone to whatever war and his mind was just messed up," she said. "He would put on a sheet like a cape and he would climb a pole and jump on the top of a bus as it was going by. Zeke saved a child from getting hit by a car; Zeke, when I was little, my sister and I were playing in the yard and the ball rolled out and he's like 'uh uh, don't come out here, don't come in the street' and he went and got it, threw it back over."
Pack, her husband, and her two children are all in the process of changing their more standard "American" or "European" names to Nigerian ones. Soon, Pack will legally be Eya Kwento. She, like a lot of black people, is looking to re-establish the connections that slavery tried to extinguish. Inside her home, art from different countries in Africa adorns her walls. A drum sits in a corner.
"I think all these communities, you just feel this spirit of tribalism," she says. "We were each other's people. . . . You just had people [say], 'Oh that's little Linda'—I look like my mom, my mom is Linda. If I go down there today it'll still be some people, and I don't have a good grasp on who they are, but it's like, 'Oh you Stevie and Linda's child.'"
Erica Pack goes through family photos at her Parkville home. (Reginal Thomas II/For City Paper)
Tribes mean safety, and for Pack, so did Turner Station. Because of this, she and her family never really ventured into nearby, white working class Dundalk unless they had to.
"White people didn't mess with us, there was no white people that came down there," she says. "Now, when my mom was little, she had to walk to the store . . . which I guess technically is Dundalk because it's past the sign where Turner Station is, so she went to the store and she told me she's had dogs chased on her before, of course called nigger. My grandmother, her mother, would have my cousin with her and my cousin . . . You would think he was white, he was very, very pale, so my grandmother would be taunted like, 'Whose white baby do you have with you?' But that was only what you got when you were in Dundalk, when you had to go near the white people. They did not come down Turner Station."
Pack's family came here from the south looking for work at the mills, but there were other professions represented, too. So for Pack, blackness wasn't viewed as a limitation. She saw her own black working-class parents, but also blackness reflected in a variety of other professions: "Most of [my family] worked at Bethlehem Steel, but the other thing that's interesting too is while most of them were blue-collar workers, there was still images of black doctors, black business owners. A lot of kids now, they don't see themselves being able to be an entrepreneur or an owner. Now I didn't know the steps to do that because I come from working class people, so you can't ask me how do you become a business owner, I don't know!" she laughs. "Ask Mrs. Speed maybe?"
Talking about family with others often churns up memories of your own past. Talking to Erika about Turner Station got me thinking more about Annapolis.
I thought about the family stories I was raised on. My mother's mother, Frances, loved to go to Washington, D.C. to sing and party. Her grandmother, who was a midwife, died on her way out to deliver a baby. My parents attended Wiley H. Bates High School, a segregated, all-black school. My mother told me that kids were bused in as far as the Eastern Shore to attend classes there. My parents have also told me about Carr and Sparrow's Beach—black-only beaches in Annapolis (not far from where I attended elementary school) where black families could enjoy being by the water, and where you could go to hear James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, and others when they came through town.
If you get nothing else from realizing this, know that black people always make a way.
My first memories of Annapolis are at my Aunt Daisy's house. She's one of the aunts who worked at Crownsville and, although she worked nights, her days were spent taking care of me, and my brother, and my other cousins—all throughout the summer and on sick days and days off during the school year. My Uncle Jerome and Aunt Rosalee lived "up the hill" from my Aunt Daisy's house, in the home that had at one point, somehow, housed my dad, his parents, and their 12 other kids long ago. We'd play with my cousin Kia, who always got the best toys for birthdays and Christmas, and run around outside Aunt Daisy's house and up the hill.
As I got older, my world got a little bigger. I started going to downtown Annapolis to run, or sit by the water, or (when I was even older) to check out midshipmen. I loved downtown for how pretty it was, for the water and crisp, white boats, how it felt like tangible history, and in spite of its blinding whiteness.
Erica Pack holds a photo of her great grandparents on their wedding day. (Reginald Thomas II/For City Paper)
After I spoke to Pack about Turner Station, I wanted a little more insight into my hometown, so I reached out to a woman I had never met, but had been following with interest on Facebook for a few years. Her name is Janice Hayes-Williams and she has made it her business to learn the history of black people in Annapolis. She writes detailed Facebook posts about different black families in the area, she has learned a lot about Crownsville State Hospital (formerly known as the Maryland's Hospital for the Negro Insane) and she also does walking tours of Annapolis.
"Nobody was telling our story," she says over the phone. "It wasn't anywhere, so I'm like 'I don't need anybody's permission to walk through the streets and tell the story of where I was raised. I'm seventh generation Anne Arundel County. My grandmother's uncle is Wiley H. Bates. My uncle George was the first African-American law enforcement officer in Anne Arundel County."
She tells me details that help me understand more about the city as it is today. She stumbles back and forth over history as she speaks, clarifying and adding to the story as she goes: "[On the tour] I talk about three different types of people: the gentry, the indentured servants—who all the black men had babies by, that's why all these light-skinned people in our town," she says, "—and the slaves. Nobody else does that, nobody else can do that. Nobody else can stand in front of a house and tell you everybody who's in there. Because we don't have slave quarters. We didn't have slave quarters in Annapolis. So everybody lived in the same house, until you started having babies and that's how we started renting from white people so they could have their slaves living out, you understand. They went to work just like we go to work: Go in eight o'clock, leave at five."
She says there were plenty of white people learning their history, diving deep into what she calls "primary source documents" that give you real, tangible details about what people were doing hundreds of years ago. Once she tapped into those networks, a wealth of information opened up.
"It's not about what you remember, because you only remember what's in your family line or what somebody tells you. But it's another thing to be able to go in and know what the street looked like and look at . . . inventories and manumission papers and who owned who and who got free," she says. "My church Asbury is the first church for people of color in Anne Arundel County. It was established in 1803. Everybody thinks its Mt. Moriah. No, Mt. Moriah came from Asbury."
She tells me about how parts of downtown Annapolis still have the footprint of a slave quarter. "This history is so rich," she says and then recommends a book, "The Slave Community" by John Blassingame. "In that book what he talks about is enclaves of descendants of slaves sometimes don't leave the culture. For example, Clay Street. Lots of people think Clay Street is the first black community [in Annapolis] but it wasn't. It was behind my church, what they call City Gate Lane. The black community started there. So that community started to grow, but when you have descendants of slaves and then we live in those communities, they become slum communities, then HUD has to come in and say 'OK, we got to do public housing,' and then we live in public housing for generations. This is a slave community."
She tells me that black families lived there, not far from the Annapolis City docks, until they got more education and stable work. When that happened they moved to Parole, where I grew up and where my parents grew up.
It's all so much—history that is valuable, but has been ignored and underappreciated for so long.
A Turner Station resident waits for the screening of â€œThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,â€ being held at Fleming Senior Center, to begin. (Reginald Thomas II/For City Paper)
I finally got around to reading "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." There's a reason why Oprah wanted to get her hands on the book. Skloot does an excellent job of weaving together several stories in one: the tale of what happened to Lacks and her family, the way the relationship between patients and doctors has changed over the years, and the importance of medical research in saving millions of lives. I was left, however, with an overwhelming sense of sadness. Lacks' family suffered a lot because of systemic racism and lack of access. This would have been true anyway, but the miracle of the HeLa cells, those cells stolen from Lacks' body, put her family's lack of access in stark relief.
Skloot reports there was some healing. Deborah, Lacks' daughter, who helped Skloot with her research, died happy that her grandchildren were doing well in school, and hopeful that education would afford them greater access to the things that would give them a better life. A young researcher at Johns Hopkins reached out to Skloot and Deborah Lacks, and not only acknowledges that the organization handled Lacks' case poorly, but also lets her see her mother's cells for herself.
And there's Mrs. Speed, still in Turner Station, a force of nature and well-versed in dealing with nosey journalists like me. For now, Turner Station still stands. It's not what it was, but it's there.
I called the number listed on that "missing" sign I saw posted in Mrs. Speed's window. The girl is now home safe.
"Thank you so much for calling and checking," the woman on the other end of the phone says before she hangs up.