Ezra E. Hill Sr. steps into the room wearing a dark suit and tie and soon casually remarks that he’s a 1931 graduate of Frederick Douglass High School. His Maryland driver’s license indicates that he was born in 1910.
There’s no reason to argue if he’s 105 or 108. Ezra Hill does not look it. His face is smooth and unlined, and despite some hearing loss, he recounts the details of his amazing life. He’s been a successful Oldtown merchant, fought in World War II and landed at Normandy, and enjoyed his encounters with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.
As a young man in Baltimore in the 1930s, he played center field in the Negro Baseball League. In 1937, his mother lent him $50 to open a Gay Street shoe store after a friend offered the advice: “There are enough doctors and lawyers. You should sell shoes.”
He picked the name Avalon for the store out of a book, he said of the business that lasted into the 1990s. He remained on Gay Street and was once visited by Malcolm X, who advised Hill to “cater to the masses, not the classes.” Hill said he already had learned that lesson and won customers by selling shoes for a dollar down, a dollar a week.
When Martin Luther King Jr. visited Baltimore in the 1960s and drove along Gay Street, a reviewing stand stood outside Hill’s store. Hill met the civil rights leader as he stood on the back of a vehicle. Muhammad Ali visited Avalon shoes on a trip to Baltimore, too.
When the 1968 riots erupted in the same block as Hill’s store, his business was not looted or damaged. He credits a good working relationship with the Black Panthers and the Congress of Racial Equality.
“The Maryland National Guard put a tent in front of my window,” he said.
During World War II, he enlisted in the Army and found himself on the Queen Mary sailing to England. A few miles out of New York Harbor, the ship was turned back after a report of German submarines. It was Christmas Eve when he returned to port and immediately took off for Baltimore. Another sailing brought him to England, and on D-Day plus 3 — or the third day after the main Allied landing at Normandy, he found himself wading through the waters of the English Channel to land in France.
“I saw the greatest military invasion in the world,” he said. “No one could form an invasion like this but the Americans. It you saw it, you could never forget it.”
A sergeant, he guarded German prisoners of war — and slipped them his candies and cigarette rations.The prisoners made up a name for him, “Le Petit Sergeant.” He remembers how a camp of captured Germans took his pack of Camels, lighted each individual cigarette, passed them around until each prisoner had at least one drag.
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More recently, he gave up his condominium at the Winthrop House in North Baltimore and lived independently in Forest Park until moving in with his daughter in Catonsville and visiting his son in Owings Mills. He stopped driving about 10 years ago and can be found in the pews of Faith Baptist Church.