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Catonsville Rails to Trails mural restoration pays homage to trailblazing African American streetcar driver

Volunteer artist Katie McGehee and Catonsville muralist Edward Williams discuss details of Berley Roberts, Sr., who operated the No. 8 Towson-Catonsville streetcar in 1952. Williams is responsible with refurbishing the mural and McGahee is adding the new elements (people) to the mural.
Volunteer artist Katie McGehee and Catonsville muralist Edward Williams discuss details of Berley Roberts, Sr., who operated the No. 8 Towson-Catonsville streetcar in 1952. Williams is responsible with refurbishing the mural and McGahee is adding the new elements (people) to the mural. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Baltimore Sun Media)

Catonsville Rails to Trails is set to complete a restoration project of a mural depicting the No. 8 Streetcar Path that includes the addition of Berley Roberts Sr., one of the first African American motorman in Baltimore.

In 1952, Roberts was assigned to the No. 8 streetcar, the well-traveled line that ran from Towson through Baltimore to Catonsville. As one of the few such drivers for the Baltimore Transit Co., he endured racial prejudice and harassment.

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In a Sun obituary after Roberts’ death at age 76 in 2001, his wife of 54 years, Fannie M. Roberts, recalled his experiences.

“People would spit in his face. People would say, ‘What are you doing sitting up here? You’re supposed to be sitting in the back of the bus,’” she told a Sun reporter.

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According to that article, Roberts, a World War II veteran, began working for the Baltimore Transit Co. in 1946, cleaning and maintaining streetcars and buses. After a promotion in 1952, he was the conductor of the No. 8 streetcar among other duties.

“In that same year in 1952 after they made him a conductor, they had over 100 African American conductors by the end of the year,” said Maureen Sweeney Smith, Catonsville Rails to Trails vice president.

Roberts retired in 1988 after more than 40 years at the transit company and the state Mass Transit Administration.

Catonsville muralist Edward Williams paints over a damaged section of the mural.
Catonsville muralist Edward Williams paints over a damaged section of the mural. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Baltimore Sun Media)

Sweeney Smith hopes the addition to the mural will be educational.

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“He will be driving the No. 8 Streetcar on the mural,” she said. “I wanted the figures to have some historical meaning, be of interest to children or tell the under-told stories of women, minorities and disabled — the main one that developed quickly was the story of Berley Roberts, Sr.”

The project, costing about $3,000, will also add figures of barkeepers in front of Canton’s Tavern. Sweeney Smith hopes the new additions will allow the mural to “come alive” and create a tourist attraction for the path.

“I hope people come to Catonsville to walk the trail and see the mural and maybe have lunch down at the [Catonsville Junction].”

Catonsville muralist Edward Williams paints over a damaged section of the mural.
Catonsville muralist Edward Williams paints over a damaged section of the mural. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Baltimore Sun Media)

The mural, located between Edmondson Avenue and Frederick Road, was originally painted in 1997 by Clark LeCompte, who was then a 14-year-old Boy Scout. LeCompte depicted a life-size image of a streetcar, recreated from diagrams that he studied at the city’s Streetcar Museum.

The organization has spent the last month washing the 16-foot mural by hand, touching up the paint and putting on anti-graffiti coating.

“We’ve spent a lot of time over there,” Sweeney Smith said. “Washing the mural was a chore in itself but we had a lot of volunteers and we got it all done … we’re kind of putting the icing on the cake now.”

Catonsville Rails to Trails, as the name suggests, is a nonprofit organization founded on the mission of promoting healthy living through converting abandoned rail and trolley lines into safe biking and hiking trails in Catonsville.

Their trail extends from the Charleston Retirement Community on Maiden Choice Lane to the firehouse in Catonsville for a total of 2.2 miles — all while preserving the history of the railroad and streetcar routes that once served the Catonsville area.

Volunteer artist Katie McGehee (left) paints Berley Roberts, Sr., who operated the No. 8 Towson-Catonsville streetcar in 1952. Catonsville muralist Edward Williams (center) and Maureen Sweeney Smith, Catonsville Tails To Trails (right) discuss some areas of the mural needing refurbishing.
Volunteer artist Katie McGehee (left) paints Berley Roberts, Sr., who operated the No. 8 Towson-Catonsville streetcar in 1952. Catonsville muralist Edward Williams (center) and Maureen Sweeney Smith, Catonsville Tails To Trails (right) discuss some areas of the mural needing refurbishing. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Baltimore Sun Media)
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