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Baltimore City

New book details how Baltimore’s Black middle class moved to the suburbs

A new book examines how Baltimore’s African American middle class overcame color barriers and racial tensions along the Liberty Road corridor over the past five decades as they established themselves in classic suburban neighborhoods.

Author Gregory Smithsimon, a Brooklyn College, City University of New York sociology professor, draws upon interviews, archives and census data to show how this area of Baltimore County is now home to approximately 82,000 Black people. The book is entitled “Liberty Road, Black Middle-Class Suburbs and the Battle Between Civil Rights and Neoliberalism.”

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He points out that in 1910, Baltimore “was home to about eighty thousand African Americans, the second largest Black population in the country after New Orleans.” Many of these residents lived in segregation in West and Northwest Baltimore, and over the years moved into neighborhoods such as Walbrook and Forest Park, and later Ashburton. By the time the landmark 1968 Fair Housing Act was passed, Baltimore County beckoned.

But it was not all that easy.

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For middle class Black people, relocating past Northern Parkway and Howard Park was not the same as it would be for a white mortgage seeker to leave Montford Avenue and move to Bel Air.

Randallstown could be a distant destination and a dream.

For starters, the Baltimore County government was wary of Black people leaving Baltimore City for homes across the county line.

Former Baltimore County Executive Dale Anderson, convicted of tax evasion in 1974, imposed a standing order that his police officers on patrol report any African American family or individual moving into Baltimore County.

The book goes on to say that, years later, Black residents on their way home from choir practice could be stopped in traffic by police officers who asked why were they out at that time of night.

It’s clear that Smithsimon rang the right doorbells and listened attentively to some of the people who experienced the times.

One of those voices is James Crockett, a pioneering Black real estate broker. Crockett himself lived on Liberty Heights Avenue within Baltimore City.

Crockett had a prodigious memory and was blessed with a personality that took him far inside whatever endeavors he chose. He was president of the Board of Fire Commissioners and could navigate a course to getting a mortgage from conservative banks.

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Crockett understood the ramifications when the federal government made Baltimore a home of the Social Security Administration. When the agency outgrew its Candler Building offices on Pratt Street, it moved to Woodlawn on land Crockett said was donated by developer and philanthropist Henry Knott.

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The Woodlawn headquarters and the Altmeyer Building opened up a job market to African Americans, who, as the author states, did better at getting federal public service jobs than positions within private industry. The federal government was predisposed to the suburbs due to fear of a nuclear attack on downtown areas.

With those jobs and salaries came the ability to aim for better housing in more stable neighborhoods.

“Liberty Road has the ring of a symbolic pseudonym an ethnographer might choose to represent the journey of the African American community toward prosperity, beginning in the inner-city Black ghetto and delivering some members to a promised land of safe neighborhoods, high-quality housing, good incomes and successful, hard-working families,” Smithsimon wrote.

The author addresses the question of mortgages and here suggests that one individual — James Rouse — had an impact on the course of events. While Rouse is known for his vision and role in creating the new city of Columbia, the author asserts that Rouse’s mortgage company was color blind and assisted mortgage-seekers in their quest to move to new developments and streets along the Liberty Road corridor.

The author interviewed three neighborhood and educational leaders, Ella White Campbell and Emily Wolfson, as well as another real estate broker, Malcolm “Mal” Sherman.

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Sherman worked in early non-racially discriminatory sales in Columbia and later sold residences in the Liberty Road area. Campbell and Wolfson were charismatic and tough community leaders who preached common sense.

“The determination and compassion of the residents I came to know in my research put them in a particularly strong position to redefine to achieve the suburban dream in a more inclusive way for everyone,” Smithsimon wrote.


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