A newly formed Baltimore nonprofit received city authorization yesterday to spend $100,000 from a state grant to buy and rehabilitate one of the former homes of legendary blues singer Billie Holiday.
The city Board of Estimates gave Billie Holiday House Inc. the required sign-on to use the grant from Maryland's Neighborhood BusinessWorks Program.
The money will be used to purchase a house on the 200 block of S. Durham St., said Robert Goetz, president of the nonprofit and a Baltimore resident.
The potential site is described as eventually becoming a "star attraction" in the "Heritage Walk" and as part of a tour of the Preservation Society's African American History program. The house would be part of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum's educational program.
Goetz said the group's goal is to buy and rehabilitate three houses on the Upper Fells Point block, making one into a tenement house that would look like the one Holiday lived in and the others into a museum.
Goetz said that although there are different accounts of when Holiday lived in the houses, the nonprofit believes that she lived in at least two of them for several years in the late 1920s as a child.
"These were the formative years where she was working at Alice Dean's brothel - where she heard Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith," said Goetz.
Holiday worked as a maid, part of her checkered history that included fame as a singer, along with drug and alcohol abuse.
Goetz said the group is in the early stages of raising money but hopes to eventually get a city-sanctioned Billie Holiday annual festival.
"Washington has a Duke Ellington festival, and Wilmington has a Clifford Brown festival," he said. "Baltimore has had a few very good jazz people here, and nothing's ever really been done to promote Billie and the rest of them."
"She's one of the greatest talents in music," added Goetz. "No one will argue with that. Instead of just taking the negative side of her life, you can show kids that she struggled and made it. Of course, she had a downfall, too."