From Benjamin Banneker to Leon Day, Frederick Douglass to Thurgood Marshall, Baltimore and the surrounding area has long played a key role in African-American history. A center of the slave trade in its early years, Baltimore later became a key stop on the Underground Railroad; although Maryland was a slave state in the years leading up to the Civil War, its proximity to Pennsylvania and the North, where slavery was outlawed, meant the path to freedom for many enslaved blacks went through Maryland.
Perhaps it’s no accident that two of the key African-Americans in the Abolitionist movement, activist and orator Douglass and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, known as Moses for leading so many enslaved people to freedom, both hailed from Maryland.
As we celebrate Black History Month, here are a dozen sites in or near the city that serve as either landmarks of or showplaces for that history.
1. Arch Social Club
Founded in 1905, at a time when African-Americans in Baltimore had few places where they could socialize together, and officially incorporated seven years later, the Arch may be the oldest continuously operating African American men’s club in the United States. Established, according to its charter, to ensure "the social, moral and intellectual uplift of its members, and in order that charity may be practiced in a Christian-like spirit and true friendship and brotherly love be promoted and maintained,“ the club remains a focal point for the community, as well as a vibrant entertainment venue. Housed for 50 years inside a building at 676 Saratoga St., it re-located in 1972 to its current location, opened in 1912 as the Schanze movie theater (it was also known as the Uptown, Morgam and Cinema). The building’s distinctive facade, featuring an arched entrance flanked by two brightly painted lounging ladies, was recently restored. archsocialclub.com.
2. Pennsylvania Avenue’s Royal Theater marquee
In its day, Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue corridor was a center of African-American culture, vibrant and star-studded enough to rival anything New York City’s Harlem could offer. And its prime showplace was the Royal, where movies were shown for more than four decades and all the greats performed live: Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, Pearl Bailey, Fats Waller, Louis Jordan, Duke Ellington, Etta James, Nat King Cole, The Platters, The Temptations, The Supremes. Opened in 1922 as The Douglass, with a seating capacity of more than 1,300, it was re-named The Royal in 1926. Though demolished in 1971, the Royal retrains a storied place in Baltimore’s entertainment history; old-timers still shed a tear when remembering its passing. This monument, reproducing the Royal’s distinctive marquee, was erected at the site in 2004.
3. Billie Holiday statue
Although most accounts agree that she was born in Philadelphia, Baltimore has long claimed Billie Holiday as one of its own. The girl who would blossom into one of the greatest singers of the 20th century, the voice behind “Strange Fruit,” a rage against lynching penned in 1939 that was honored as the Song of the Century by Time magazine, grew up on the hardscrabble streets of Baltimore, mostly in Fells Point; as a performer, she would often return to the clubs on Pennsylvania Avenue, including the Royal. Living hard, with an alcohol and drug problem she could never shake, Holiday was only 44 when she died in New York City in 1959. This statue, by Baltimore sculptor James Earl Reid, was unveiled in 1985; accompanying panels depict a black man who has been lynched (a reference to “Strange Fruit”) and a crow eating a gardenia, the flower she customarily wore in her hair, an allusion to Jim Crow racism.
4. Sharon Baptist Church
Dating to 1882, when it began as a Sunday school mission of Macedonia Baptist, this West Baltimore church has long been in the forefront of African-American progress in the city; one of its first pastors was William M. Alexander, first editor of the Baltimore Afro-American. The congregation also started the first school for black children in West Baltimore. The current church building, part of the Old West Baltimore National Register Historic District, dates to 1870; it was purchased from the Whatcoat Methodist Episcopal Church in 1914. facebook.com/sharonbaptistchurchbaltimore.
5. Leon Day Park
Leon Day (1916-1995) was one of the greatest pitchers to ever toil in the Negro Leagues, the sole outlet for African-Americans looking to play professional baseball until the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson broke the major leagues’ color barrier in 1947. A righthander with a “deceptive fastball and a sharp curve,” according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 1995, the northern Virginia native (his family moved to Baltimore not long after Leon was born) pitched more than 10 seasons, primarily with the Newark Eagles, but also for the Homestead Grays and Baltimore Elite Giants; some thought him an even better pitcher than the great Satchel Paige. Returning to Baltimore in 1970, Day died on March 13, 1995, just six days after being told of his election to the Hall of Fame. Leon Day Park opened in West Baltimore’s Rosemont/Franklintown neighborhood in 2000. facebook.com/pages/Leon-Day-Park.
6. Eubie Blake Cultural Center
Would ragtime have existed without Eubie Blake? Hard to say, but he certainly helped its rollicking jazz beat become the soundtrack of the 1920s. Blake, born on Baltimore’s Forrest Street in 1883, got his start playing piano at boxing champ Joe Gans’ Goldfield Hotel in East Baltimore around 1907, and rarely looked back. His hits included such musical mainstays as “Bandana Days”, “Charleston Rag”, “Love Will Find a Way”, “Memories of You” and the oft-heard classic “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” With partner Noble Sissle, he was responsible for “Shuffle Along,” one of the first Broadway musicals written and directed by African Americans.
Blake remained a force in music for decades, and enjoyed a revival in the 1970s and 1980s; in 1979, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom by President Reagan. A review featuring his music, “Eubie!” opened on Broadway in 1978. Blake died in February 1983, just five days after his 100th birthday. The Eubie Blake Cultural Arts Center was established in 1983, and moved into its current location in 2000. The building includes a performance venue, “Eubie Live!” as well as classroom and gallery space. eubieblake.org.
7. The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum
Established in 1983 and housed in its current location since 1989, the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum honors more than 100 black leaders, historical figures and entertainers, from W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X to actor Howard Rollins, aviator Bessie Coleman and musician Bob Marley. Among the goals of founders Elmer and Joasnne Martin was to “to stimulate an interest in African American history by revealing the little-known, often-neglected facts of history” and to “to use great leaders as role models to motivate youth to achieve." The museum welcomes about 300,00 visitors annually. greatblacksinwax.org.
8. Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture
A repository for artifacts of black history in the Free State; a forum for artists, performers and activists; and a classroom where youngsters from all over the state learn about a history and culture too long neglected — the Lewis Museum, with 82,000 square feet of space, has been an East Baltimore showplace since opening in 2005. Named to honor the $5 million donated by Reginald F. Lewis (1942-1993), one of the most successful African-American businessmen of the 20th century and the first to build a billion-dollar company (Beatrice Foods), the museum houses a collection of more than 10,000 items, dating from 1784 to the present. lewismuseum.org.
9. Baltimore Civil War Museum
Opened in 1850 for the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad, the President Street Station is among the oldest passenger terminals in the country. President Abraham Lincoln passed through here in February 1861, on his way to his first inauguration. The following April, Massachusetts soldiers, switching trains on their way to Washington, were attacked by a mob of southern sympathizers, leading to what many regard as the first blood spilled during the Civil War. Used as a freight station into the 1940s, it was eventually acquired by the city and slated for demolition. Cooler and more respectful heads prevailed, and after considerable renovations, the station was reopened in 1997 as the Baltimore Civil War Museum, housing displays and artifacts on the city’s Civil War history, including the Underground Railroad. baltimorecivilwarmuseum.com.
10. Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park and Museum
The Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park and Museum, operated by Living Classrooms, pays tribute to both Douglass, the 19th-century abolitionist born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and Myers, a labor leader and a founder of the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company, America’s first African-American-owned shipyard. Partly housed in one of Baltimore’s oldest waterfront industrial buildings, the museum and park walks visitors through Douglass’ life and offers insight into what life was like for African-Americans of the day. Douglass, born into slavery in 1818, came to Baltimore as a child; he learned to read and write, eventually toiling in Fells Point shipyards before escaping to freedom in 1838. Other nearby sites associated with Douglass include Douglass Place, a stretch of homes in the 500 block of Dallas Street that he built as rental properties for African-Americans. livingclassrooms.org.
11. Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum
A Baltimore County native born to free black parents, Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) was a scientist, surveyor and farmer whose accomplishments included helping to set the original boundaries of Washington, D.C., publishing a series of popular almanacs in the 1790s and trading letters on slavery and racial equality with Thomas Jefferson. The 142-acre Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum was established in 1988 on land in the Patapsco River Valley that was once Banneker’s farmstead. The museum includes artifacts from Banneker’s life, as well as from archaeological digs in the 1980s; exhibits on natural history and astronomy; a gallery telling Banneker’s story; and a kids’ discovery zone. The surrounding park includes nature trails, a reconstructed log cabin, herb and vegetable gardens, an apiary and more. friendsofbenjaminbanneker.com.
12. Hampton National Historic Site
This opulent Georgian-style mansion, formerly the centerpiece of an estate half the size of present-day Baltimore and home to the Ridgely family for more than 150 years, was once the largest private home in the country. Much of the Ridgely’s fortune was made through iron ore mined on the property, and much of the labor was done by enslaved people; accurate records do not exist, but the National Park Service, which administers the site, estimates that more then 500 men, women and children were enslaved by the Ridgely family. Slavery at Hampton did not end until it was abolished by the Maryland constitution of 1864. Three former slave quarters still stand on the property, and exhibits, as well as occasional tours, focus on the slave experience at Hampton. nps.gov/hamp.