During the Civil War, families of formerly enslaved troops gathered in Baltimore’s Reservoir Hill to join husbands, fathers and sons in freedom.
Standing outside her leaf-shaded Madison Avenue cafe, Cole’s eyes sparkle when she shares this history, as if she’s bringing that moment, with all its hopefulness and courage, back to life.
“The stories of so many of those families... is very unsung,” said Cole, who goes by just one name.
This Saturday will see a new generation of Black families take to the street outside Dovecote, the cafe Cole co-owns with her wife, as part of an ebullient Juneteenth celebration. Juneteenth, which became a federal holiday Thursday after President Joe Biden signed legislation, marks the day in 1865 enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned, two years after it was issued, that the Emancipation Proclamation freed them.
After more than a year of being closed for the pandemic, Dovecote will reopen for what its owners say is a bright new chapter for Reservoir Hill’s only coffee shop. For fans, it’s not a moment too soon.
Cole and her wife, Aisha Pew, always wanted Dovecote to be more than a cafe. They refer to it with female pronouns, and talk about it like a precious bird.
“She is her own entire embodiment,” Cole said with a laugh.
After moving to Baltimore from California in fall 2015, the couple chose Reservoir Hill to build their business. The Northwest Baltimore neighborhood is home to stately Victorian brownstones and a huge stone archway that once provided the entrance to neighboring Druid Hill Park. Dovecote’s building, Cole noted, was built in 1863, the same year President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Restaurants clog Baltimore’s so-called “white L,” which runs through the center of the city and encompasses such majority-white neighborhoods as Fells Point, Canton and Hampden. But they are much fewer and far between in the surrounding “Black butterfly,” which includes majority-Black neighborhoods like Reservoir Hill. The relative shortage of businesses is a big problem for those areas, City Council President Nick Mosby said.
“Having Dovecote right in the center of Reservoir Hill means a lot,” he said.
It’s the rare place to grab a bite, or take a meeting, and its more than yearlong absence was sorely felt. Such businesses are crucial, Mosby said, to the overall health of the community. “We need Dovecotes all across the city.”
Cole and Pew chose not to open the cafe during the pandemic at all. For one thing, said Cole, the takeout model that so many restaurants used to stay open during 2020 just wouldn’t work for the restaurant.
“Dovecote is not a takeout spot. We’re a ‘Come in and get a hug and have a cup of tea and a piece of peach upside down cake and some coffee spot,’” she said.
Another factor: They were stranded in South Africa.
After a trip to visit family that began in November 2019, they had planned to return in April 2020. At the end of March, however, South Africa closed its borders because of COVID-19 and the airline that they had flown in on ceased operating. Repatriation flights would cost around $4,000 per person. They also were concerned about the safety of flying during a pandemic.
“So that ended up really contributing to the decision to just stay put,” Cole said.
From South Africa, they organized food drives in Baltimore and conjured up plans for the cafe’s future. Last summer, they held a virtual Juneteenth celebration.
“We also had the room to just rest,” Cole said.
After precautionary COVID-19 tests, they finally returned to Baltimore in April, embarking on a mad dash to renovate the cafe, refinishing its floors, adding new wallpaper and expanding an outdoor seating area by June.
“And we’re in Mercury Retrograde,” Cole said. “So that’s been hard.” (Some astrologers suggest there are times when the planet Mercury’s orbit is detrimental to doing business.)
One employee, 18-year-old Myah Willis of Park Heights, said she looks forward to returning to her job at the restaurant after taking a job at Chipotle during the pandemic. Willis started at Dovecote as a 14-year-old intern, part of a job training program her mom signed her up for.
“When I was 14, I didn’t really know my potential as a chef,” Willis said. But the team at Dovecote pushed her to take risks and trust herself. By age 15, she was managing the brunch shift solo.
Those skills have been crucial as she’s pursued her career in the hospitality industry. She’s now enrolled in culinary school.
Dovecote also provided Willis with an opportunity to connect with other Black chefs and entrepreneurs. Among them: Amanda Mack, who worked at the cafe before opening her own wildly popular bakery and event space in Hampden, Crust by Mack.
Cole, an Oakland, California, native who draws inspiration from the Black Panthers, hopes Dovecote makes people see the possibilities for “unapologetically Black” businesses that are centered within their communities. That sense of celebration of Black culture can make some white customers uncomfortable; Cole said white people have complained that the cafe feels “too Black.”
“White folks don’t know how to be part of a space without being at the center,” she said.
In addition to Dovecote, Cole runs a nonprofit called Brioxy, which provides training and business support to Black entrepreneurs. Its funders include CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield and the T. Rowe Price Foundation.
“What I love about Dovecote is their sense of place,” said John Brothers, president of the T. Rowe Price Foundation. “Every nook and cranny of that place benefits community,” he said, whether highlighting artwork by Black makers or giving away food to city residents. “They’ve become a place and community that builds community.”
The first time she stepped inside the cafe, Destiny-Simone Ramjohn, vice president of community health and social impact for CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, said she witnessed an elderly couple leisurely sipping coffee outside, a young person banging away on a MacBook, and a dog sipping water from a bowl. On the wall, designer wallpaper featured African Americans in 18th-century poses. She was overwhelmed, she said, by a feeling of “social cohesion and community.”
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“I started looking for homes in that neighborhood after visiting,” she said. Though she didn’t end up buying in Reservoir Hill, her visit to Dovecote “just made me feel like it was someplace that I could plant roots.”