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Over a century old, Arch Social Club preserves particular vision of black masculinity

For over a century, Arch Social Club has offered haven.

When it was formed in 1905, it served as a safe space for black men to convene and socialize far from the disapproving gazes of their religious wives or the injustice of a segregated society.

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Last year, in the aftermath of April's unrest, members opened the doors of the club building at North and Pennsylvania avenues, offering water, sandwiches and use of its restrooms to those in need.

Now, the haven itself — situated where nightclubs and music palaces once lit up the neighborhood — is a bit down on its luck. Its aging membership has dwindled from around 300 men in 1972 to 60, of whom about 20 are active. Its neighborhood is ravaged by drugs, with dealers and addicts loitering.

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But those remaining stay dedicated to their mission of promoting a particular view of masculinity and morals in a changing world.

"It takes men and teaches them integrity," club manager and house president Marvin Williams said. "When you think of a club, you think of all things glamorous, but here, we're more focused on men taking care of their kids, having one wife, not cheating. ... Just the strong values of us being men."

Founded by three men — Raymond A. Coates, Jeremiah S. Hill and Samuel I. Barney — and recognized by the state in 1912, Arch is said to be the oldest African-American social club in the city, and possibly the second-oldest in the country. Formed to bring men together and strengthen the community, the group invited residents — women included — to its multipurpose venue, hosting charity events and raising funds for schools, churches and even war bonds. It has hosted weddings and live music shows, entertaining with acts such as Hank Crawford, Irene Reid, The Drifters and The Manhattans. And the entertainment and charity continue today.

On a recent Wednesday night, the club's Red Room was buzzing with members and their guests for a midweek tradition of line dancing, karaoke and crabs. The bar was fully stocked, and music blasted from stereo speakers.

Anita Gross, 58, moved across the dance floor, her quick steps timed to the music as friend Deidre George-Cooper, 55, watched. Both women, recovering addicts, have been coming to the club for nearly 10 years, usually walking over from sessions at Penn North Recovery Center. Here, they can unwind without feeling pressured to drink, they both said.

"We just come here for fellowship and the line dancing," said Gross, carrying a tray full of crabs.

Audra Forbes, 49, a karaoke singer who also is a waitress at club events, calls herself an "Arch Social Club family member," preferring the calmer nights of singing and dancing to the often-chaotic club scene in other parts of the city.

"It's a place where I can socialize and enjoy myself," she said. "It's a safe haven."

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The entertainment, featuring local music acts, is a draw, according to City Councilman William "Pete" Welch, a member for about four years.

"One thing they have is the most talented house bands I've ever seen," said Welch, who goes to the club a few times a year.

Still, "It's more than a nightclub," said Kaleb Tshamba, chairman of the trustee board and the club's historical researcher. "To me, it's more like a recreation center for mature people."

It's where men can be men, he said.

"You see the people out there?" asked Tshamba, 66, pointing to teenagers standing idly outside the club doors. "We didn't have all that."

Pennsylvania and North avenues — or what Tshamba calls "ground zero" — drew unfamiliar faces to the corner and the neighborhood during the riots following the death of Freddie Gray last April. It was the club's worst year ever, Tshamba said.

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Williams, 52, recalls the riots clearly.

"I was standing right out here when they were coming down the street," Williams said. "It was just the rage that you felt. It was like you could see this aura."

The club went through the unrest unscathed but in the aftermath, drug dealers suddenly appeared outside its doors, Tshamba said. The corner reeked with marijuana smoke. Members could see people dealing drugs through the club doors, he said, and as a result, fewer people frequented the club.

In the 12 months leading up to Gray's death, only 12 police calls were made to the location of Arch Social, according to a Baltimore Police Department report. From April 20 of last year until the beginning of this month, 48 calls were made, at least 15 of them drug-related.

Many members — most are over the age of 50 — remember the avenue in a different era.

"Anybody out in the streets can't come in unless I OK it," said Larry Washington, 91, the club's oldest active member.

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The veteran, who proudly wears a World War II baseball cap, has been the doorman since he became a member in 1972, he said. As a child, he lived next door to the club's former location on Saratoga Street (it moved to Pennsylvania Avenue in 1972). He remembers following the organization's yearly parades through the city until he was old enough to join.

Men today, they don't want to be providers. ... I think this is the sorriest generation of men that we've ever had.

—  Kaleb Tshamba, Arch Social Club

The world has changed since then, Washington said, recalling the time he spoke with a teenager who bragged that he had finally found a job that enabled him to work nights: drug dealing.

"'You're not going to be out there long,' I told him," Washington said.

Said Tshamba: "I don't see strong men like I did when I was young.

"Men today, they don't want to be providers. They don't want to take care of their children. They want to run from woman to woman. Some of them want women to take care of them. ... I think this is the sorriest generation of men that we've ever had," he said.

As he spoke, a woman with a little girl in a stroller pushed a man against the club doors.

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"When's the last time you gave me money?" she hollered. The man averted Tshamba's gaze.

"I feel for a lot of women today," he later said, noting that though the idea of irresponsible black men is a stereotype, it's something he witnesses every day in West Baltimore.

Arch Social Club attempts to battle social problems by recruiting more men, giving them useful skills and engaging with the community.

"We teach men how to dress and behave and how to treat ladies. We teach men how to run this as a social organization," Van Anderson, the organization's president, said. "It's also a corporation, so they need to know how to run the finances and various operations."

The 62-year-old software engineer said he first joined the club around 10 years ago after hearing about it from Tshamba. Since then, he has learned how to run a club, a business and a social organization — things he never thought he would do.

Getting in isn't easy. Applicants must be at least 25 years old. They must have at least two members who vouch for them, a clean bill of health confirmed by a doctor, good financial standing and upstanding character, Williams said. Board members interview and vote on prospective members.

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There's also a dress code: no jeans, no tennis shoes and no sweatsuits, according to a sign posted in the club's first room.

Attracting members, especially men in their late 20s, 30s and 40s, has been difficult, said Tshamba, who is ready to pass the torch on to a younger member. He fears what the inability to recruit means for the century-plus organization, he said.

"When you can't get them to become members, your organization dies," said Tshamba, who hopes to recruit 100 new members this year. He uses the Arch Social Facebook account, which has nearly 5,000 members, and the club's website to make announcements about events and the club's intention to recruit.

Bryce Peake, an assistant professor of media and communication studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, notes that many social clubs and organizations are experiencing a decrease in membership in a time when masculinity and manhood can be defined and affirmed in different ways.

"There's not that need for the collectively affirming of their masculinity. They get that from other outlets," Peake said.

But for Arch Social Club, defining manhood is likely significant, Peake said, since historically, the club was combating the pressures of white society that criticized black men's social respectability. Now, Arch members are saying some of the same things to the younger generation of black men today — arguing that the lack of responsibility of young black men is detrimental to the community, Peake said.

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"[The members] are kind of saying, 'Sorry, generation, we did all this to look like a respectable society,' and I'm sure the young men who are interested in social justice are listening to that and looking at it suspiciously."

The strict rules and responsibility that comes with membership could also be a deterrent for some, Williams said.

"That's one thing that separates us. If you're not willing to put your time and personal money [into] this club, it's not for you," Williams said, emphasizing that many of the men pay for the club's expenses out of pocket.

So far this year, the club has added two names. Most recently, Andre Jones, 26, now the youngest member, was inducted April 5.

He has been attending the club since he was 21, tagging along with his godfather and helping elder members stock the bar and take care of menial tasks. Jones, who considers himself an "older soul," said he grew to love the "more mature" scene and applied to become a member about a month ago.

"As they say, they are building men into leaders. I've noticed that they have," Jones said. "Ever since I [was] 21, they have always talked to me with experience and have been giving me knowledge."

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For a club that is hoping to revive its membership, especially with a generation that appears less interested, Jones is a potential future leader needed to attract a younger generation.

"I think a fresh perspective might be good in addressing community issues," said Welch.

"They take applications very seriously," he said, confident that they will attract men who share a similar love for the community, whether they are younger or older.

For the members, the hope is to maintain their brotherhood and their legacy.

"It's like our home," Washington said. "We show love down here and talk to the brothers."

bbritto@baltsun.com

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twitter.com/brittanybritto

If you go

Classic Soul Spring Fling Show and Party: The next public event at Arch Social Club is a night of line dancing, raffles and live entertainment by The Delfonics Revue and the Philadelphia band Loves' Magic. 8 p.m. until midnight April 30. Arch Social Club, 2426 Pennsylvania Ave. $25. archsocialclub.com


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