Baltimore Glimpses: the long struggle for civil rights


C The "Baltimore Glimpses" article on yesterday's op/ed page referred to the death of Lou Baumel. Mr. Baumel is in fact very much alive.

The Sun regrets the errors.

POP SINGER and movie star Dean Martin died a few weeks back. It's too bad Lou Baumel died first, a few years earlier. Lou was one of the owners of the Club Charles, at Charles and Preston streets, where Loyola Federal is today.

In the days when Baltimore was a big night club town, the Club Charles and the Chanticleer (Charles and Eager) featured the era's biggest stars -- Ted Lewis, Sophie Tucker, Sid Caesar, Zero Mostel. Baltimoreans of those days will recall taking in the likes of Martin and Lewis at the Blue Mirror, Eddie Leonard's Spa and Cy Bloom's Coronet -- to say nothing of the many clubs on The Block: including Bettye Mills' Stork Club, Blaze Starr's 2 O'Clock Club, and the Oasis ("World's Worst Show").

A crew-cut cut-up

Lou Baumel had a million Dean Martin stories. "In the 1940s we had a guy played the Club Charles," he told us, "a crew-cut, cut-up named Jerry Lewis. He used to start his act by going over to the ladies room and banging on the door, hollering, 'Come on out, ladies, the show is starting!'

"I paid him $125 a week. He had a partner, name of Dean Martin. I paid him $200 a week."

And why did he pay Martin more than Lewis?

"Oh," Baumel said. "This guy used to sing a little."

* * *

On the afternoon of December 8, 1933, 150 African Americans congregated on the streets and sidewalks of the 1600 and 1700 blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue. They carried signs: "Don't Shop Where You Can't Work." What the black protesters wanted was some of the jobs in the Avenue's white-owned stores.

This protest was perhaps the beginning of the civil-rights movement in Baltimore -- 21 years before Brown v. Board of Education, 30 years before public-accommodations bills opened the restaurants and theaters, 19 years before the first black students were admitted into Poly's all-white "A" course; 30 years before the famous protest at Gwynn Oak Park during which priests and ministers and rabbis, black and white, were led away in handcuffs.

From the 1930s through the 1960s, resistance in Baltimore to civil rights was stubborn and unrelenting. In the 1940s when stars Ella Fitzgerald, Nat "King" Cole and Sarah Vaughan came to Baltimore to play the Hippodrome or the Royal, they could not sleep or eat in the downtown hotels -- the Southern, the Lord Baltimore or the Emerson. They were required to stay in the hotels over on Pennsylvania Avenue that would accept blacks -- the York, Penn, Smith's -- and to dine in restaurants hospitable to blacks in that area.

Three diplomats

On April 23, 1961, three African diplomats dressed in full diplomatic attire walked into Miller Brothers restaurant in downtown Baltimore and nobody stopped them. They ate, lingered, paid the check and left.

But these "diplomats" were not diplomats -- they were locals George Collins, Herbert Mangrum, and Rufus Welles. They took their story to The Sun, which broke it the next day. The Sun asked an embarrassed community why it would serve foreign blacks but not local blacks.

Resistance continued, vigorously.

On the Fourth of July of 1963, around noon, about 400 people assembled at Metropolitan United Methodist church at 1121 W. Lanvale St. -- white and black, young and old, Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jewish.

Among them were the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, chaplain of Yale; Msgr. Austin J. Healy, Rabbi Morris Lieberman and the Rev. Marion Bascom. They boarded buses and headed west for Gwynn Oak Park, the popular Baltimore County amusement park that had a strict whites-only admission policy.

Police dogs

At about 3 p.m. the protesters arrived at the main gate. They were met by Chief Robert Lally of the county police, backed by 50 policemen (Lally would reveal later that police dogs were kept on call).

The focus quickly became the main gate, where protesters were blocked by Lally and his police cordon. Lally read the Maryland trespass act, charged the protesters with violating it and ordered them arrested -- 283 of them. Embarrassed at having to lock up clergymen, he said, "As chief of police, I have no alternative. The law of Maryland says they can't trespass. I can't legislate."

They boarded the county school buses and were driven off to the Woodlawn police station. A young lawyer named Robert Watts, later Judge Watts, met them to act as counsel.

The entire protest was peaceful. There were no reports of police brutality.

The barrier falls

Gwynn Oak Park was integrated in August of that same year, when Spiro Agnew, then Baltimore County executive, persuaded the county council to create a human-relations council that would open Gwynn Oak to all. The park closed in 1974.

Public accommodations is now the law of Maryland and the land. A shortened list of African-American leaders who helped bring it about in Baltimore includes Lillie Jackson, Parren J. Mitchell, Madelaine Murphy, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, Enolia V. McMillan, Walter Lively, Elizabeth Murphy Moss, Walter Carter.

To that list we have to add the three "African diplomats:" George Collins, Herbert Mangrum and Rufus Welles.

Gilbert Sandler writes from, and about, Baltimore.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad