2 neighborhoods show city's gems of black history

It's amazing the history that can be found in Baltimore's older neighborhoods.

Consider Fells Point and Seton Hill, two 18th century communities that have survived and remain as stable as they were decades ago. A walking tour of each neighborhood should be a part of Black History Month, celebrated this month.


Start in the 500 block of S. Dallas St., one of those small -- almost an alley -- streets that dot Southeast Baltimore. It was here that Frederick Douglass built a small row of rental houses many years after he'd come to Baltimore. There's a fine limestone marker he had set into No. 520. It reads, "Douglass Place," a name that never appeared on city maps, but remains a memorial to the man his biographer calls the "gadfly of the American conscience."

You can read of Douglass and his youth both on the Eastern Shore and in Fells Point, but your time will be well spent on a visit to Dallas Street. It's a classic Baltimore back street. Half the houses have a covering of Formstone. Some have cleaned brick facades. Some are painted. Each is tiny.


It's the third week of February and there are still Christmas wreaths and a candle in one of the windows there. It's a slice of Baltimore life, with a little trash blowing around but a great deal more pride of place.

On this quiet block, just around the corner from the main H&S; Bakery, you don't have to strain to imagine a Fells Point of the 1820s, with its dense concentration of houses built on main streets, alleys and tiny inner courts. If you look around a corner, you'll see a stretch of the harbor. Walk over to Caroline and Lancaster streets (the old City Dock) and you'll see students learning the art of wooden boat construction. There's also a marine railway (a kind of boat launching device) that only a few years ago was named for the renowned abolitionist.

In 1826, Douglass worked in James Beacham's shipyard at the foot of Lancaster Street while he lived as a slave in the home of Hugh Auld on Happy Alley near Aliceanna Street.

It's hard not getting a similar feeling in Seton Hill, a neighborhood due north of Oriole Park at Camden Yards and the Lexington Market. Look for the 600 block of N. Paca St., and Orchard, Tessier and Jasper streets as well. This too is an ancient neighborhood of tiny streets and houses.

This is also the neighborhood where Baltimore's black community traces its origins and the beginnings of the Pennsylvania Avenue-Division Street-Druid Hill Avenue area.

Some of the founding members of the city's black community came to Baltimore from the Dominican Republic and its capital city of Santo Domingo. A slave rebellion there at the time of the French Revolution drove some to quit the island. They came to Baltimore not as slaves but as free persons of color.

The French Revolution was not kind to the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church in France. Members of the Society of Saint Sulpice, the order of teaching priests, came to Baltimore in 1791. The priests bought a large tract of land on Paca Street. The priests spoke French, as did the families from Santo Domingo. There was a natural affinity.

A visit here should include a stop at St. Mary's Seminary Chapel, one of the glories of early Baltimore architecture. It sits at the edge of a large public park, enclosed by a brick wall where the old main seminary once stood. The chapel (it still sees frequent use as part of the St. Mary's Spiritual Center) was designed by Frenchman Maximilian Godefroy. The main floor was used by the priests and their students; the basement was the neighborhood's Catholic church.


In the basement chapel is a wooden statue of Mother Elizabeth Lange, a mulatto from Santo Domingo who founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence with the help of Father James Hector Joubert, who had been a French tax agent in the Dominican Republic before he became a priest. Her order was founded July 2, 1829. The first convent was on tiny St. Mary's Court, a street that once stood off the 500 and 600 blocks of Pennsylvania Ave. The nuns soon moved to what is today Read Street and Park Avenue.

The Oblate Sisters taught the black community to read, and before long added lessons in French, English, arithmetic, catechism, embroidery and sewing. The order continues its work at a much larger school, St. Frances Academy at Chase Street and Brentwood Avenue.

The Orchard Street Church, which faces St. Mary's Seminary Chapel across the park, is today the home of the Baltimore Urban League. It has been carefully restored with a fine Victorian church nave and its Sunday school made into modern offices.

But listen hard and the old organ seems to resound with a rousing Methodist hymn.