Members of the late Cab Calloway’s family and their allies spent half of 2019 fighting to prove that the jazz pioneer’s former home at 2216 Druid Hill Ave., which the city and local community development corporation planned to raze and replace with a park, was worth historic preservation.
Now, evidence that connects the Calloways and the house to trailblazing black civil rights advocacy might give them another card to play.
On Tuesday, during an off-agenda portion of a Commission for Historic and Architectural and Preservation meeting, Executive Director Eric Holcomb noted that an activist named Andrew J. Reed may have lived at the house during the early 20th century.
Holcomb said that Reed was the onetime president of the United Mutual Brotherhood of Liberty, a Baltimore-based organization that Holcomb described as a predecessor to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and other groups that used the legal system and civil disobedience to fight institutional racism.
Holcomb added another crucial piece of information: that Reed was Cab’s grandfather.
“Now here’s where it gets interesting: in Cab Calloway’s autobiography, he states that he and [his sister and fellow musician] Blanche and his family went to live with his grandparents, so this could also be a house of Mr. Andrew J. Reed that has significant associations with [the civil rights organization]," said Holcomb, according to video of his remarks that Calloway’s grandson Peter Brooks published to YouTube on Wednesday.
Most of the evidence Holcomb cited came from a letter supporting preservation that Dr. Dennis Halpin, the associate chair of history at Virginia Tech, sent the commission. Halpin’s letter referenced his July 2019 book, “A Brotherhood of Liberty: Black Reconstruction and Its Legacies in Baltimore, 1865-1920,” which explores Baltimore’s lesser-known importance to the shape of black advocacy in the decades after the Civil War.
Halpin told The Baltimore Sun that Reed led the organization in at least 1891, as its last documented president.
His letter mentioned how one of the Brotherhood’s most notable actions — leading “a successful effort to overturn Maryland’s prohibition on black attorneys” in 1885 — allowed Calloway’s father to practice law and obtain the means to live in the area in the first place.
“By the 1910s, northwest Baltimore became the center of African American life and culture and Druid Hill Avenue became the neighborhood’s pulse,” Halpin wrote, according to a copy that Brooks emailed The Sun. “Cab and Blanche Calloway would have certainly grown up aware of the fight for civil rights that their grandfather helped wage while also keenly aware of the persistence of segregation...This is a story that needs to be told and there is still much for us to learn. The connections that the Calloways have to the larger black freedom struggle are just now being discovered.”
Halpin told The Sun that Reed’s connection to 2216 Druid Hill Ave., where Cab lived as a teenager, is more difficult to verify at present than his relationship to the Calloway family, of which he is near certain. Still, he believed wholeheartedly in the house’s importance.
“Even if Andrew Reed has no connection to the house, I think it has value, in that it’s part of West Baltimore....which becomes such an important place both in the city’s history and the national story of segregation and Jim Crow,” he said. “We know that Cab Calloway is a hugely important cultural figure in the 20th century that has connections to the Harlem Renaissance. And Blanche Calloway...was a pioneer in her own right, both as a woman but particularly a black woman in the entertainment industry. So, I think for those reasons, it’s certainly worth preserving.”
Brooks’ video of the commission meeting also showed all but one of the nine present commissioners voted to request a 90-day delay of demolition from the Department of Housing and Community Development chairman Michael Braverman, which could allow time for more research into the house’s historic value. Braverman’s department will oversee the planned destruction of the vacant and deteriorating house.
Housing and Community Development spokesperson Tammy Hawley pointed to section 8-10 of article 6 of the city code as proof that CHAP, not her department, has the authority to put a stay on demolition. “In the case of a structure on the Potential-Landmark List, if the Commission determines that the proposed regulated alteration is inappropriate, the Commission must notify the [Housing commissioner] in writing to postpone issuance of the permit,” the section read.
“It is my understanding that CHAP is not exercising formal authority under the code at this time, but rather is in the process of doing some initial research,” Hawley said. “They have indicated they would like to get back to us in a few weeks to indicate their findings and intentions at that time.”
Holcomb did not immediately return The Sun’s request for comment on CHAP’s plans.
Kate Edwards of Housing and Community Development was the lone commissioner to not back the delay on Tuesday, citing that Druid Heights community members preferred the plans for a new park that are already in motion. Although the department said in October that demolition would likely take place by the end of 2019, Hawley said on Friday that it has not yet issued a permit to proceed with it. She did not provide a specific date for that, only saying that “demolition was imminent” until this week’s revelations.
The planned park, most recently dubbed Druid Heights Cab Calloway Park, would involve demolishing all of the largely derelict houses on the 2200 block’s even side. Brooks’ quest to preserve the house has pit him and supporters against the Druid Heights Community Development Corporation, which developed the park in tandem with the Department of Planning. The debate grew acrimonious, with allegations of intimidation and bad faith between both sides.
Both the CDC’s Executive Director Anthony Pressley and founder Jackie Cornish declined The Sun’s request comment on the new information on Friday.
The issue even split the Calloway descendants. Cab Calloway’s daughter Cabella Calloway Langasm, who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, wrote in October that the park “would both honor Cab Calloway and benefit the community with vital green space." Brooks counts family members like his mother Camay Murphy, brother Christopher Brooks and aunt Cecelia Calloway (who spoke in support of preservation, alongside congressional candidate Reba Hawkins and others, on Tuesday) on his side. They remain convinced of the house’s potential, especially with the new information that Halpin gave them about Reed’s connection to the house.
Murphy, who used to lead The Eubie Blake Cultural Center, is campaigning in Havre de Grace (where she now lives) to erect a statue of trailblazing Negro Leagues baseball player Ernest Burke. Both she and her son believe that their family’s story, from Reed to Calloway and beyond, remains important to the area.
“My father made a huge contribution to the popular culture of America, and if you sort of stumble across an artifact or something that belonged to or had some significant impact on the person, at the time that their career was evolving or growing, I think it’s important to maintain that artifact,” Murphy said on Friday.
“It is really, really bold and extraordinary for Cab to be just a dude on the street, and then three years after leaving Baltimore, to be one of the top two or three entertainers in America?" Brooks said. “How do you do that?”