Baltimore's African-American history, and its footnotes, showcased at Inner Harbor

In honor of Black History Month, a Legends & Legacies Jubilee will be held at the Baltimore Visitor Center. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun video)

A woman dressed in a blue 19th-century dress and knitted shawl explained to a group of children that the Underground Railroad did not operate on steel rails.

Gina Lee, who was portraying famed Underground Railroad "conductor" Harriet Tubman at Baltimore's Legends and Legacies Jubilee at the Baltimore Visitors Center, caught the attention of a room of children and parents Saturday afternoon.


"Children really don't know about the Underground Railroad, whether it was above or under ground. I explain it to them." said the actress, who performs with Arena Players and also works for Baltimore's Register of Wills.

Saturday's event at the Inner Harbor was sponsored by Visit Baltimore, the city's tourism agency. It was designed to showcase Black History Month, with an emphasis on Baltimore's history and how that history can be used to increase local awareness, as well as tourism.

"I consider Baltimore to be the cradle of the civil rights movement," said Tom Saunders, one of the presenters.

Saunders said that Baltimore's 19th-century history, when the city was home to numerous free blacks, provides scores of tourist sites. He arranges narrated bus tours to many of those sites.

"So much of Baltimore's history is overlooked, and it shouldn't be," he said, adding that he arranges local tours from an African-American perspective.

Among the stops on his tours: St. Frances Academy in East Baltimore, a school created in the 1820s by Roman Catholic nuns to educate young African-American women; and the Fells Point shipyard of Isaac Myers, a ship caulker who became a national trade union leader after the Civil War.

He spoke of President Street Station in Harbor East, where fleeing Virginia slave Henry "Box" Brown, who was crated in a wooden box he had supplied with airholes, was shipped through Baltimore on a train to Philadelphia — and freedom.

"The Orchard Street Church is really the home of the Underground Railroad," he said of the church in Seton Hill.

Saunders said local tourists have a fascination with the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor. He cautioned that not every spot associated with Baltimore's one-time black shopping and entertainment district was right on that street.

"Some were a block or two away, and some farther," he said. "Every time I take a group there, people start talking about a shop called Dirty Ida's."

He described the bargain shop. "It was a variety store that had a little bit of everything in it. There would be piles of shoes and stockings all over the place. People tell me if you didn't have much to spend, you might find some good things there."

Todney Smallwood, a Baltimore resident, dropped by the event with his 8-year-old daughter, Sydney.

"I like we are celebrating out culture today and with it we are bringing more awareness to Baltimore. It;s important we inspire our kids with out history," he said

As she surveyed the packed visitors center, Dionne Joyner-Weems, a marketing vice president of Visit Baltimore, said, "There's an energy and a vibe here today."