When white neighbors in Lauraville learned of plans to relocate an African American school and community into their Northeast Baltimore neighborhood in 1917, they sued to prevent what they — and The Baltimore Sun at the time — called a threatening “negro invasion.”
Their unsuccessful lawsuit, protests, editorials, letters and legislative bills seeking to preserve “the sanctity of an all-white community” betrayed their ignorance.
Black people already lived on the Ivy Mill property where Morgan State University now stands. They mined a nearby Herring Run quarry and worshiped at a nearby black church, said Steven K. Ragsdale, a member of the Baltimore City Historical Society’s board of directors.
“Black people lived in the neighborhood,” Ragsdale said. “They just didn’t know it.”
More than 100 years later, those same neighborhood groups acknowledged their racist past and celebrated Morgan State University’s Founder’s Day in a “Peace, Unity and Reconciliation” event at the campus on Thursday.
About two dozen neighborhood leaders, elected officials and other Northeast Baltimore representatives took the stage at Morgan State’s Murphy Fine Arts Center holding candles, pledging their commitment to each other, and rejecting the hatred and division that long characterized the relationship between the historically black university and its white neighbors.
“We declare that we are one Northeast Baltimore community,” Morgan State President David Wilson said. "We are united in purpose, we are united in progress, and we are united in promise.”
Ragsdale, the keynote speaker, displayed historic newspaper clippings, letters from the Lauraville Improvement Association to the college’s board members and a slew of other documents in a nearly 30-minute presentation about the resistance to the school’s move from its earlier locations in West Baltimore and Virginia. His research will be published in an upcoming book.
Sandra Cryder, immediate past president of the Lauraville Improvement Association, said she had been particularly disturbed to see the “hateful letters written over 100 years ago by the LIA were on the same letterheads that were still in use until a couple of years ago."
Black residents now comprise 54% of the neighborhood, she said, and "neighbors of different races and backgrounds live amicably, side-by-side.”
“Today, as we celebrate our commitment to peace, unity and reconciliation within our Northeast Baltimore communities," Cryder said, "I believe it is very important ... to confront our implicit biases and dismantle institutional impediments that must be overcome to improve the lives of those who have been harmed by systemic disenfranchisement.”
Kweisi Mfume, chair of the Morgan State University Board of Regents who is running for the 7th District congressional seat, hearkened to the school’s founding in November 1867, “just four years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law, abolishing what the late historian John Hope Franklin called the 'peculiar and cruel’ institution of slavery.”
“That barely noticed yet very significant founding was also to become the threshold for the launching of a new era in all areas of life for a race of people here in America who had suffered, endured and survived two centuries of slavery, oppression, deprivation, degradation, denial and disprivilege,” Mfume said.
The school’s founders built the institution with only “a few dollars, 20 students, but enormous hope,” Mfume said.
After Ragsdale’s presentation, the lights went down. Recordings of President Donald Trump blasting Baltimore as “disgusting” and CNN’s Victor Blackwell emotionally defending his hometown echoed through the darkened auditorium before trumpeters, the Morgan State University Chorus and dancers performed a stirring version of a song with the refrain: “This is Me.”
The event was both educational and entertaining, said Branden Lowe, a Morgan State freshman.
“We came a long way and reunited,” said the 18-year-old from Waldorf.
Rita Crews, president of the Belair-Edison Community Association and a 1976 graduate of Morgan State, said the event was so meaningful that she found herself close to tears.
“In order to improve Baltimore, we all have to work together,” she said. “That’s it.”