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Whitmore Park renamed ‘The People’s Park’ to honor residents of Annapolis’ old Fourth Ward

Elizamae Robinson remembers the old Fourth Ward as the jewel of the Black community in Annapolis.

The Black Belt, as it would be known, was a thriving residential community of about 3,000 people whose Black-owned hair salons, barbershops, grocery stores, hotels and restaurants stretched along Calvert, West, Clay and West Washington streets.

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Robinson lived there for 19 years in the 1930s and 1940s. She can recall Levin’s grocery store, the segregated Star Theatre along Calvert Street and the former county jail.

“I remember there were a number of Black businesses in that Calvert and Clay and Washington Street area,” said Robinson, now 88. “There were beauty shops and barbershops and a pool hall.”

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The neighborhood was partially leveled in the mid-1960s when the last of 33 properties on the block, owned by Black and Jewish residents, were surrendered to Anne Arundel County to build a parking garage for county employees.

On Tuesday, local civil rights leaders and officials gathered to rename the park that now sits where many of those homes and businesses once stood. It will be known as “The People’s Park” in honor of the thousands who were displaced by urban renewal and creeping gentrification.

County Executive Steuart Pittman acknowledged the work of many current and former county employees and particularly Annapolis historian Janice Hayes Williams, whose family lived in the neighborhood and was instrumental in pushing for revitalizing the park.

“Janice talked to me and made it clear that we still have a lot more work to do at this park to remember these families that were removed from the Fourth Ward,” Pittman said. He announced plans for a storyboard to tell the story of the families who were forced to sell their homes and were threatened with eminent domain if they didn’t.

The park was previously named for John Whitmore, the first chairman of the Anne Arundel County Council under charter government and a white man.

More than 50 years later, the event is still a difficult reminder of the wrongs of the past, Hayes Williams said. The thriving community had been a by-product of segregation that barred businesses from serving Black residents. That was taken away when the garage was built.

“The hurt and the pain of the community being decimated has been a sore spot for every generation,” she said. “They had the nerve to name it after a white man. It has been a bone of contention.”

Hayes Williams’ mother was born in her great-grandfather’s house where the park now sits. Her great-uncle Wiley H. Bates represented the Fourth Ward. During the ceremony, she was given the honor of cutting the ribbon on the new sign. In her hand, she held a placard with her great-grandfather’s name on it, William Henry Hebron, that will be affixed to a bench in the park.

“The park is a sacred space,” Hayes Williams said. “That’s my family.”

The park is steeped in history — both the good and the bad, said Carl Snowden, a civil rights activist and convener of the Caucus of African American Leaders.

In 1906, a white mob broke into a jail across from the park and seized a Black man named Henry Davis who was accused of assaulting a white woman. They dragged Davis through the Black Belt and lynched him at St. John’s College. It is considered the last known lynching in Annapolis.

By the Second World War, the old Fourth Ward was a flourishing, self-contained community. Some called it the Harlem of Annapolis. There was industry — brickmakers and fish merchants and oyster packers lined the streets, interspersed with entertainment venues and eateries. Singer and actress Pearl Bailey used to frequent the Dixie Hotel. Her mural now spans one side of Whitmore garage.

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“That particular area has, for African Americans local Annapolitans, a lot of significance,” Snowden said. “And it symbolizes what once was.”

Robinson moved to Eastport in the 1950s and though she didn’t live there when the land for Whitmore Garage was taken, she recalled the pain it caused the community to be uprooted and scattered across the city.

“I knew they were tearing the community apart, as far as the families that were left there. They were scattered,” she said. “Folks that you were used to seeing on a daily basis, you didn’t get to see them anymore. ... It was sad. You kind of missed that camaraderie that you had. Everyone knew everyone. You saw them every day. That closeness was lost.”

After the ceremony, Snowden convened the monthly Caucus of African American Leaders at the newly-renamed park. There Pittman recognized the contributions of local organizers who have held protests, prayer walks and demonstrations over the last several weeks in response to the killing of George Floyd.

“What this park has become is a place for people who want to make change,” he said as he stood under the Speaker Michael E. Busch Amphitheater. He noted the March on Washington Foot Soldiers Memorial and a placard acknowledging the five known lynchings in Anne Arundel County a few steps away.

“I love it when people gather here before they go over to the county council to make trouble and to make their voices heard,” he said. “I’ve been here for the start of Black Lives Matter marches that started here. There are going to be a lot more marches and a lot more gatherings before council meetings that start right here in People’s Park.”

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