On Pennsylvania Avenue, a fresh library offers a look back

As old photographs of local jazz musicians flashed on a screen, those gathered in the Pennsylvania Avenue branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Druid Heights on Monday night shouted out names or furrowed their brows, racking their memories for old acquaintances and friends.

About 50 people gathered for local historian Thomas Saunders' program "Revisiting Pennsylvania Avenue: A Trip Down Memory Lane" at the library branch and long-standing community landmark, which just completed a three-month renovation.


Willie Johnson Jr., the library's manager, said the library, built in 1953, was "always a beacon for this neighborhood," and hosting the neighborhood history event was a perfect precursor to the building's grand reopening Nov. 14.

"It was a much-needed makeover, not only for the staff but for the community," Johnson said of the fresh paint, new carpets, children's zone and new artwork — including a locally themed mural behind the circulation desk and the image on the front doors of a young girl reading.

The neighborhood, steeped in African-American history, has enjoyed something of a revival in recent years, Johnson said, and the library — the system's third-busiest — hopes to maintain its role in the community.

"It brings the people out where they can meet, greet and have a good time," he said. "Pennsylvania Avenue is slowly but surely coming back."

As part of the turnaround, Saunders — president of Renaissance Production & Tours — said he plans to remap what Pennsylvania Avenue looked like through the years, dating back decades to when segregation meant African-American residents were restricted in terms of where they could live, eat and work.

"We want to know everything that was on every block," Saunders said, before writing "Fulton Avenue" on a large pad of paper.

A lively discussion followed as the group moved block by block through their memories, recalling long-gone carryouts and clubs that have changed names many times over.

Michael Mitchell, a former state senator and son of civil rights activist Clarence Mitchell Jr., stood multiple times during the program to talk history and inequality, to argue that some of the places remembered should not be honored.

"The lower part of Pennsylvania Avenue was no holiday for blacks," he said, noting there were times when African-American residents couldn't live north of Dolphin Street or east of Madison Avenue, and tuberculosis and typhoid were rampant in the neighborhoods they were restricted to. "This was a center of activity for our community, but it wasn't by choice, it was by law."

During his own childhood, Mitchell said, he remembers Wilson's Restaurant offering carryout but no seating to African-American customers.

"Under threat from my father, we didn't order anything from carryout there," Mitchell said. "Those are monuments to segregation, and I get a visceral reaction to some of these places mentioned."

Saunders said his efforts were to gather as much history as possible. Many in the audience seemed happy to recall the places they liked and didn't like.

"I thought it was beautiful," Roxanna Sykes said of all the reminiscing.

The library plans to host similar history programs in the future, Johnson said.


Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.