Writing 'a folk history of Baltimore'


Take a break from your cell phone-and-pager life and travel back in time to when Sunday church, dinner and spirituals on the radio provided for many people a counterpoint to hard work the rest of the week.

Gas lamps lighted the streets, dead relatives were laid to rest in the parlor (while mirrors sometimes were covered to ward off evil spirits) and the iceman saved food from spoiling.

It was the early 20th century, and it is being brought to life again Tuesdays at the Waxter Senior Center on Cathedral Street. About a dozen Baltimoreans, mostly African-Americans, have been talking and writing down their stories.

A collection of their work called Along the Way has been printed by the city. It's a gift of memories for younger people who perhaps can't imagine life before the Internet.

"We're writing our memoirs to capture our experiences and pass them on to people, since once we're gone, they're lost," says Calvin Lee Tolbert, a Navy veteran who worked for the post office and still works as an extra on movie sets. "I can write about what I know as a poor person in the Depression."

Sometimes they talk or write about things that didn't occur, such as the legend that circulated for years on the east side: that if a Johns Hopkins Hospital medical student caught you outside at night, nobody would ever see you again.

For the teacher leading the Waxter group, retired school psychologist Janet Woodridge, the discussions are an educational experience. "I've learned a lot," she says, "and I've lived here all my life."

The group's school experiences are key to unlocking doors to the past, Woodridge says, because of the common bond of segregation. Most in the class graduated from one school, Frederick Douglass High School, because they couldn't attend any other.

Hurts caused by Baltimore's white-black divide surface in conversation. In leading a class discussion, Woodridge recalls a half-finished wall built by a neighborhood near Morgan State University. "They didn't want to see black folks in college," she says. "We called it Spite Wall."

Schooling had a different meaning for Ruth Henderson. A mother of seven, she wrote an essay about having to drop out of school because of economic hardship. Much to her delight, she passed a test for a state high school diploma in 1976 and felt "I was free, free at last."

One essay by Ethel A. Milledge, 81, records her cousin Irene Morgan's refusal to give up her seat on a Greyhound interstate bus in 1944. Arrested, Morgan saw her case rise to the Supreme Court. One of her attorneys was Baltimore native Thurgood Marshall, who would be appointed to the court years later.

The essay is titled "Before Rosa Parks," referring to the more famous Parks, who was arrested for not giving up her seat on a bus in the South about 10 years later. Milledge concludes by noting that a surprise 85th birthday party was recently held for Morgan at "the elegant McKenzie's Restaurant in Baltimore."

Woodridge urges the class to choose places of meaning to use as starting points. James A. Owings, 81, a retired principal and science teacher, includes in the title of his autobiographical essay the street where he lived as a boy: "Sunday Morning on Carrollton Avenue."

Owings' father was a butler for the prominent Riggs family and wore well-cut Sunday suits handed down by his employer. Ames Methodist Church was the family destination on Sunday, and after that, a roast lamb dinner was prepared and served at home by his mother.

Berries and boiled dough made a dessert known as "rolly-bolly."

"The table had to be set correctly and pass my father's inspection," Owings writes. After dinner, his father read the comics aloud. "I enjoyed the comics, but my father's voice sounded the same when he read the comics as it did when he read the Gospel according to St. John."

When his father walked upstairs at the end of the day, Owings writes, he always hummed "God Moves in a Mysterious Way." As Owings recalls, "I used to wait to hear it. When he stopped humming, I knew that ... peace and quiet would prevail until morning."

The class engaged in a different kind of humming recently, demonstrating a sound they said had crossed the ocean in the slave trade and made its way into African-American churches. They later burst out into song - "Amazing Grace."

Not everything the class talks about (or sings) is written down in the memoirs. But what has been put to paper is priceless, says Mayor Martin O'Malley, who visited not long ago.

"It's a folk history of Baltimore," O'Malley says. "I can't wait to read it more fully. Too often we lose oral history. This is something their grandkids will cherish."

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