Leading The Way Louis C. Fields sees Baltimore's history and makeup as a big draw for African-American tourists. Look around, he says.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Louis C. Fields steers his car through the Baltimore neighborhood, passing public housing projects, boarded-up rowhouses, mountains of demolished rubble and signs warning "No Loitering By Order of the Police."

Others may see a depressing -- and depressingly common -- cityscape. Fields squints a little, dreams a little and sees flocks of tourists drawn to the once and future soul of black Baltimore.

"Thurgood Marshall actually lived here," he says in amazement, pointing to the rowhouse on Division Street. Down the street, turn, and: "This church was built 100 years ago by freed black slaves." A couple more blocks, and: "This was a site on the Underground Railroad."

Spend a few minutes driving with Louis Fields and you begin to see the Pennsylvania Avenue neighborhood his way: Not as it is but as it was -- and can be again.

"This was the heart of black life in Baltimore," Fields says.

Fields spent the last several years researching and compiling a guide to Baltimore's African-American history, published earlier this year with the help of a grant from the city. He sees his "Baltimore African-American Resource & Tourist Guide" not as a finished project but as a starting point for developing a network of attractions that celebrate the city's rich, black history.

An entrepreneur and student of black history at Coppin State University who declines to give his age, Fields is part of a burgeoning nationwide movement to preserve sites of African-American historic importance and turn them into attractions to draw tourists. He has organized a nonprofit group, the Baltimore African American Tourism Council, to spark more interest locally.

In the past, historic preservation, much like history itself, focused on the powerful and the wealthy, which in this country has largely translated into: the white. In other words, estates like the Carroll Mansion in Baltimore and the du Ponts' Winterthur in Delaware were the kinds of homes preserved and set aside for tours. But in recent years, activists have sought to include sites of importance to other ethnic and economic groups.

"Traditional preservation has dealt with history from an Anglo perspective," says Claudia Polley, director of the National Association of African-American Preservation, a 3-year-old group based in Indianapolis. "It's not wrong, but it's a very small focus. We're just now beginning to tell all of the story."

The African-American preservation movement has been building in the past five years and has yet to crest, Polley says. Which is why it baffles her that Baltimore has done less than other cities to capitalize on its own history and population. The city had the largest free black community in the country before the Civil War, numbering 25,000, and currently is 63 percent African-American.

"Baltimore could do more. It has such a rich history. It needs to focus and use its history as a catalyst for economic development. Cities that don't have as much as Baltimore does are realizing that this is key," Polley says.

In Baltimore, much of what comprises black history is already gone or commemorated only with a mention of what once was here. The legendary Royal Theater, comparable to Harlem's Apollo, is long gone. It was torn down in 1971. Other sites that still stand, such as Marshall's former rowhouse, remain in private hands rather than open as a museum. On a tour with Fields, you're more likely to see a statue of Billie Holiday or a plaque honoring portrait painter Joshua Johnson rather than their actual home or studio. It is, sadly, often a tour of the imagination.

It is a bad time to be historic, white or black, in Baltimore these days: The City Life Museums have gone bankrupt, meaning that the Carroll Mansion, the Mencken house, the Peale Museum and other sites are closed and some might even be sold. Meanwhile, the Inner Harbor is pinning its tourism hopes on the generic Hard Rock Cafes and the Cheesecake Factories, and the soon-to-open ESPN Zone, the latest of the ersatz theme restaurants.

Fields, though, has seen big-deal harbor attractions come and go. The city, he believes, is missing the obvious -- its own black heritage.

"They've lost money on the Brokerage, the Fishmarket, the Columbus Center," he says. "The big buildings are fine, but what really makes a city great is the people, the neighborhoods."

Fields does anticipate that one proposed Inner Harbor attraction will boost his cause: a state-operated African-American museum scheduled to open at Pratt and President streets several years from now.

Fields, who has published minority business guides in the past, is getting some response to his efforts.

"Louis has done a terrific job and worked very hard to put together the resource guide," says Carroll R. Armstrong, president of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "I need to sit down and read it so I know what we have here to market. We have to identify what our product is, then figure out how to tell our story and [identify] where are the people we want to tell it to."

Armstrong says his group is in the "embryonic stages" of researching the subject and hopes to develop a plan and a budget for its next fiscal year, which begins in July, on how to market Baltimore as a heritage tourism destination.

"I think we can do more. I have to admit, cities like Philadelphia are light years ahead of us on this," Armstrong says.

Philadelphia is frequently cited as the city that's done the most to promote its African-American attractions; its convention and visitors bureau has a division devoted to multicultural promotions.

Other cities include New Orleans, which eight years ago started a network to promote festivals and plantation tours from an African-American perspective; and Kansas City, where the 18th and Vine district was turned into a showplace of black life with two museums, one celebrating jazz and the other Negro Leagues baseball.

Industry officials say minority tourists are an increasingly lucrative market.

Sixty-four percent of African-Americans reported taking a trip in the past year, according to a 1994 study by the Travel Industry Association of America. Other findings:

African-Americans spend about $405 per trip, slightly less than the overall average of $421.

They were more likely to travel for business, especially for conventions.

They're more apt to add vacation time to a business trip.

They're significantly more likely to attend cultural events and festivals and engage in night- life, dancing and gambling.

They shop more than other groups (40 percent vs. 34 percent).

They rent cars four times as often.

"We're not talking about what's right or wrong. We're talking about what makes money," says Solomon J. Herbert, publisher and editor of the monthly magazine Black Meetings and Tourism, with 25,000 subscribers nationwide. "To ignore a whole segment of the population doesn't make good business sense."

For Fields, who grew up and still lives on the west side of Baltimore, it would be personally and professionally satisfying to see black tourists drawn to his city.

He first became interested in developing heritage tourism in Baltimore about five years ago. He had published a guide to Baltimore's black businesses and one of his clients, a shop owner downtown, told him many of her customers were from out of town and interested in any tourist sites that dealt with local African-American history. Fields did a little research and put together a one-page flier.

He then began coordinating tours with local bus companies. He now operates his own company, Black Heritage Tours, and plans to update his guide every year. The guide is available through Fields, at (410) 783-5469.

The 128-page guide is an amateurish, but fascinating, piece of work. It includes capsules on attractions ranging from the Great Blacks in Wax Museum to the Henry Highland Garnett Park, a pocket-sized garden dedicated to the son of an enslaved African chief who became a preacher. Then there is a section of brief biographies of legendary African-American Baltimoreans, like Eubie Blake and Negro League pitcher Leon Day. The guide also steps out into the rest of the state, detailing attractions and figures from each county in Maryland.

It ends by listing other sites that are not necessarily African-American in origin -- the National Aquarium and the B & O Railroad Museum, for example -- but still of interest.

"No one," he notes with a smile, "goes somewhere just to do one thing."

Historical markers around the state

There's more to African- American history in Maryland than the Great Blacks in Wax and the Kunte Kinte plaque, but you have to be something of a sleuth to find traces of a fast- disappearing heritage. Here are some clues: In Garrett County, Negro Mountain is a tribute to a servant killed in the 1700s when Indians attacked his hunting party. Attempts to change the name to something more politically correct have failed because state officials believe it represents a rare public tribute by an 18th-century white man for a valued black man. Joshua Johnson, the country's first black professional portraitist, worked in Baltimore from 1795 to 1825. His studio, near where the Morris Mechanic Theatre now stands, is gone, but Johnson's work lives on in his paintings. Seven are in the Maryland Historical Society, two are at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown and the Baltimore Museum of Art displays his "Charles Herman Strikler Wilmans," the 5-year-old son of a Baltimore merchant posing with a toy rifle and a small dog. The real-life model for the title character of Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was a slave on a plantation in what is now Bethesda. Josiah Henson escaped via the Underground Railroad and became a prominent abolitionist and businessman in Canada. His home in Dresden, Ontario, is now a museum. All that's left of the plantation is a cabin attached to a house, now privately owned, off Old Georgetown Road south of Tilden Lane.

A home once owned by Patty Cannon, who with her gang captured free blacks and sold them into slavery in the early 1800s, still stands -- it's a private home -- and a historical marker marks its spot in Reliance, where Caroline and Dorchester counties meet Sussex County in Delaware.

One of nine indentured servants brought to Maryland with Lord Baltimore's expedition was Mathias de Sousa, believed to be the state's first black resident. De Sousa, possibly of African and Portuguese descent, arrived in 1634 and completed his indenture four years later. He is considered the first black state assembly member because records show he voted in the 1642 legislative assembly of freemen. A bust of de Sousa is mounted on the St. Mary's City waterfront, close to where he first arrived aboard the Ark.

Pub Date: 5/05/98

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
73°