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A Picture Of Black Baltimore

Sixty years ago, for the first time, black Baltimore made a thorough study of itself.

The landmark work, "The Negro Community of Baltimore," was sponsored by the Baltimore Urban League, paid for by a white millionaire, A. E. O. Munsell, and written by a black sociologist, Ira De A. Reid. It is now almost forgotten.

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But the 1935 report merits another look. It is one measure of how much blacks' status in Baltimore has changed over six decades and how much it hasn't.

The rapid growth of Baltimore's black community -- and its segregation in ghettos -- began in earnest in the 1920s. That was the first decade in which the African-American population, driven by the migration of rural blacks to Baltimore, grew more rapidly than the city as a whole.

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The migration eased during the Depression, then boomed during and after World War II. By 1970, Baltimore's black population had reached almost its present size of 436,500. In 1980, after three decades of white flight to the suburbs, Baltimore was majority-black. Today, despite some black flight to the suburbs, the city is 63 percent African-American.

In 1935, Baltimore was home to about 145,000 blacks, or 18 percent of the population. While many African-Americans still lived in segregated pockets that had historically dotted the city, a "black belt" had also developed.

It ran from roughly Franklin Street north to Druid Hill Park and from Madison Avenue west to Gilmor Street. The area included much of today's neighborhoods of Upton, Druid Heights, Madison Park, Penn North, Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park.

Pennsylvania Avenue was the center of black commerce and culture. South of Dolphin Street were rowdy taverns, dance halls and brothels, a stretch "so bad, the birds sang bass," one old-timer told Roderick N. Ryon, author of "West Baltimore Neighborhoods." To the north, "The Avenue" was the most vibrant African-American strip south of Harlem. Earl "Fatha" Hines played the New Albert Casino, and well-tailored patrons filled the Royal Theater and Strand Ballroom.

At the south end of Baltimore's black section was the slum known as the "Lung Block" for its high tuberculosis rate. Tiny, dilapidated houses -- some propped up with wooden beams to keep them from collapsing, according to one newspaper account -- lined interior streets and alleys. The area's crime and illegitimacy rates were Baltimore's highest.

Farther north, mainly along Druid Hill Avenue and McCulloh Street, the city's small black middle class lived in elegant rowhouses. Lawyers and doctors set up shop there, as did fraternal lodges, social clubs and churches such as Bethel AME and Union Baptist.

"In those days it was only a handful of blacks, professionals and schoolteachers, who lived in non-substandard housing," said Walter Sondheim, 87, a longtime Baltimore civic leader who was then a young Baltimore Urban League board member. "Take away the post office and the schools, and there were very few decent jobs for African-Americans."

Enolia P. McMillan, 90, began teaching in Baltimore's segregated schools in 1935.

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"There were only two areas open to black women: One was domestic care and washing, ironing, cooking and cleaning; the other one was teaching," said Mrs. McMillan, who later became Baltimore and national NAACP president. But snagging a teaching job "did depend a great deal on the pull your family had."

Mrs. McMillan said her mother was told that, if her daughter wanted a job in the "colored" schools, she should see Tom Smith, a black hotelier who had "pull."

Her mother refused -- "My mother said, 'If she doesn't get a job on her qualifications, she won't get any' " -- and it wasn't until 1935, after teaching nine years in Charles County, that the Howard University graduate taught in Baltimore.

Mrs. McMillan became one of only 1,350 blacks in public service: schoolteachers, probation officers, postal workers and the like, according to the Reid report. Baltimore's black professionals -- "one of the most representative middle-class communities in the country" -- numbered about 3,000. They were lawyers, doctors, dentists, ministers, educators, journalists -- almost all serving other blacks exclusively.

But even the most prosperous African-Americans were treated as second-class citizens if they ventured downtown.

"It was really a segregated city," Mr. Sondheim said. "I worked at Hochschild Kohn's [department store]. We waited on African-Americans, but on an all-sales-final basis. People couldn't return things, they couldn't eat in the restaurants, and they were only employed in menial capacities. The fact that blacks were not treated as full citizens as customers was a major issue with both the Urban League and the NAACP."

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Half of married black women worked, often as domestics paid $3 to $10 a week, while only one-sixth of white wives did.

Blacks had a near-monopoly on jobs that were "menial, common labor and odoriferous," Reid wrote. They worked in fertilizer and chemical plants, on highway and railroad work crews, in coal and lumber yards. Three-fourths of industrial firms surveyed by Reid said blacks couldn't advance beyond their present status. Their reasons: There was plenty of white help; patrons would object; it was against "the policy"; the races don't "mix well."

The Depression hit blacks hard. In 1934, 40 percent of Baltimore blacks were on unemployment relief, compared with 13 percent of whites. Many white politicians said this showed blacks didn't want to work.

"You should have known that there is not a single colored police man, municipal or state clerk, plumber or carpenter in Baltimore or Maryland," Carl Murphy, president of the Afro-American, Baltimore's crusading black weekly, wrote Sen. Millard E. Tydings in 1935 after one such remark. "You pour salt into wounds when your party and your race hog all the jobs municipal, state and private, and then intimate there is some special reason why colored people aren't at work."

Among the greatest changes for black Baltimoreans since 1935 has been access to employment. In 1990, the top four job categories for black men in the city were retail trade, transportation, construction and public administration. For women, the leading fields were health services, retail trade, public administration and education.

What has not changed for black Baltimoreans over the past six decades, at least in relative terms, is also striking. As in 1935, whites on average earn more, live in better housing, have more education and are healthier today than blacks.

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* INCOME: White Baltimore households earned a median income of $28,445 in 1989, compared to $21,035 for blacks. Blacks' per capita income was only 54 percent of whites'. Blacks' poverty rate (28 percent) was twice that of whites, and nearly half of black children under 5 were poor, compared with 1 in 6 white children.

The number of affluent black families has grown, although it lags far behind whites. More than 18,000 black households in the city had incomes of $50,000 or more in 1989, as did another 13,500 black households in the surrounding suburbs.

* HOUSING: Almost two-thirds of white Baltimore households owned homes in 1990, compared with 35 percent of blacks. (In 1935, black homeownership was 17 percent.) The average value of white-owned city homes was $75,914, compared with $49,350 for blacks.

* EDUCATION: More than a quarter of white adults had college degrees, compared with one-eighth of blacks. (In 1940, the figures were 5.2 percent for native-born whites and 1.5 percent for blacks.) The city schools, completely segregated in 1935, are now 87 percent African-American. City schools spend less per pupil than majority-white suburban systems, much as black schools got less than white schools during segregation.

* HEALTH: In 1935, the rate of illegitimate births was 2 percent for whites and 20 percent for blacks. In 1993, 34 percent of white babies and 77 percent of black babies were born out of wedlock.

Infant mortality rates have declined dramatically, but the racial gap remains. The Reid report said infant mortality was 53.2 per 1,000 live births for whites and 87.5 for blacks. In 1993, the rates were 7.3 for whites and 16.6 for blacks.

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In the 1930s, three-quarters of Baltimoreans who died of venereal disease and nearly half of tuberculosis victims were black. In 1993, almost 90 percent of Baltimoreans who died from AIDS were black. It was the third leading cause of death among blacks, behind heart disease and cancer and just ahead of homicide.

In 1929-1933, blacks were the victims in about two-thirds of Baltimore's 330 murders. In 1994 alone, Baltimore had 321 homicide victims. Ninety percent were black.

One thing has changed: In 1934, blacks accounted for 94 percent of those arrested in Baltimore for "playing the numbers." Today, of course, the Numbers Game is run by the state of Maryland. Black Baltimoreans still play more than whites. But the odds of winning are just as poor as they were 60 years ago.

James Bock is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.


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