Lafayette Square shares its history

Get to know West Baltimore's Lafayette Square.

Next Saturday's tour of "Lafayette Square By Foot" carries an accurate secondary description: "Baltimore Thru the Ages!"

This neighborhood, constructed around a public park, has ties to the Civil War, slavery, and the monied Victorians who gave way to Baltimore's African-American upper middle class. Did I mention that jazz legend Billie Holiday once lived around the corner too?

The square itself is a fascinating, if overlooked, urban destination. On a chilly April afternoon, I observed its detached beauty. It was quiet and occupies high ground. You could observe its history in the facades of all the grand mansions. You visualize Baltimore's 19th-century wealth one minute and the next imagine how those fortunes moved on.

The presence of the area's vacant houses speaks to a continuing exodus from what was once a prized address.

The Lafayette Square story involves race, urban economics, demographics and religion. It's a place where the African-American congregations have now worshipped longer than the white denominations who built the imposing stone edifices that dot the square.

"Our history has made an impact on all the surrounding neighborhoods," said Arlene Fisher, a lifelong square resident, organizer and board member of Baltimore Heritage, the preservation group that is sponsoring the tour.

"Our two neighborhood groups, the Harlem Park Council and the Lafayette Square Association, are going strong. We worked together to gain a historic designation for what we call Historic Old West Baltimore. But for all that, we do feel the neglect of the city government. Why do we have all these big beautiful vacant houses?"

Be warned: Lafayette Square is a bit hard to find if you are not familiar with West Baltimore. The park is bordered by Lafayette, Carrollton and Arlington avenues and Lanvale Street. When you arrive, you find yourself thinking, 'Why didn't I know more about this neighborhood?' It's not a stretch to imagine gas streetlights and the passing streetcars.

For the record, Billie Holiday lived a few blocks to the east, on Argyle Avenue. The house was torn down and is now a weedy vacant lot.

Nearly 40 years ago, long stretches of the old Pennsylvania Avenue shopping and entertainment district vanished to the clean sweep of the urban renewal planners. Lafayette Square, while only a few blocks to the west, survived and retains much of its original look.

It was the place where prominent African-Americans moved in the 1920s when white families moved on. Black congregations bought the churches, and prominent clergy and other African-American professionals lived here.

There's also the political side. William Donald Schaefer, the Baltimore mayor and later governor, spent his early childhood on Lanvale Street, just off the square. His parents were part of that white exodus. He moved with them to Edmondson Village, located three or four neighborhoods to the west.

Two storied black politicians later lived on the square. State Sen. Verda Welcome, the first black woman elected to a state Senate, lived on Lafayette facing the square. Parren J. Mitchell, the first African-American elected to Congress from Maryland, bought a mansion at Lafayette and Carrollton. His former home will be open for tours.

There is also the square's stubborn gray ghost, the Sellers Mansion. Perhaps the largest of all the square's residences, it remains vacant. Built in the late 1860s by an eccentric family who fled after the Civil War, the place has defied attempts at preservation.

In a 1955 article, after its reclusive heir died, The Baltimore Sun described the place: "The lofty rooms held nothing but fireless hearths, marble wash basins, brass chandeliers — and the March wind."

The Lafayette Square tour and related April 18 events are part of a series of Billie Holiday centennial celebrations organized by the Upton, Harlem Park, Penn North, Druid Heights and Pennsylvania Avenue neighborhood groups. The tour, 10 a.m. to noon, is sponsored by Baltimore Heritage. The Parren J. Mitchell Home, 828 N. Carrollton Ave., opens at 11 a.m. There will be jazz in the square from 4 p.m. to dusk.

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