An activist's 'gift of a history'

The Baltimore Sun

Mary Rosemond scarcely saw herself as a neighborhood activist, archivist or authority. When she bought a West Baltimore corner rowhouse in the mid-1950s, she was among the first African-American families to settle on Rosedale Street.

"The black community was just beginning to push into this area," said the 83-year-old Baltimore City elementary school teacher. "I liked the house and wanted to have a yard."

Little known to most of her neighbors, she was also an indefatigable collector of neighborhood news. So much so, she filled 55 loose-leaf binders and shelved them in her basement.

"She's our real treasure," said Robert Hunt, a neighbor who is with the Alliance of Rosemont Community Organizations. "She can tell you how this area has changed, minute by minute."

Hunt, who occasionally helps Rosemond get to doctor's appointments, felt that her documentation - letters to city officials, community cleanups and initiatives and committee notes - ought to be made available to a wider audience.

He contacted Baltimore Heritage, a preservation group, and one of its interns - a social worker who had been frustrated by what she had thought was a shortage of information about the neighborhood.

Brandi Nieland, a University of Maryland graduate student, discovered Rosemond's news articles, correspondence, newsletters and other materials related to the greater Rosemont area.

"When I saw the shelves filled with binders, my mouth dropped and I quickly made a space for myself on the floor so that I could sit and read," Nieland said. "One by one, I pulled them off the shelf and flipped through. This could change everything. West Baltimore does have a history - we just have to find it. It is hidden in basements and attics."

She said that the only constant she could find on every neighborhood was the census data. She also consulted the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Maryland Historical Society.

"Her collection is about communities coming together to make positive changes in their neighborhoods," Nieland said of Rosemond's archive. "What her neighborhood has done for itself is inspiring. Her collection is like Baltimore City's personal diary."

Earlier in her quest, Nieland said, she found only two books on Baltimore's west-side neighborhoods and scattered bits of information pertaining to a few communities. Several news stories linked Rosemont as the home of City Councilwoman Agnes Welch and the late businessman Reginald Lewis, namesake of the African-American history museum downtown.

"If I looked up Fells Point or Jonestown, I would have had a plethora of information," Nieland said.

Nieland said she was gratified by the care and personal touch Rosemond showed. Many of the notes Rosemond kept are in her perfect penmanship.

Rosemond, who grew up in a home built by her family in Jacksonville, Fla., said she wanted to give something back to Baltimore, where she moved about 1948 after a marriage and graduation from Hampton Institute.

Rosemond, who enjoys painting in oils, retains a trace of her Southern accent. Her home is filled with furnishings - including a comfortable rocker - that she brought North.

"I've often thought about going back home," she said, adding "but I'm here now."

She said that some of her neighborhood activism came about 10 years after she and her husband had moved to Rosedale Street as the city planned an eight-lane interstate expressway through West Baltimore and the Gwynns Falls Valley.

This scenario was all too familiar to her. An interstate highway had been cut through her family's neighborhood in Jacksonville.

"They just broke up the neighborhood," she said. "But my mama wouldn't sell."

She adopted a similar spirit in Rosemont in the 1960s. She joined coalitions and eventually won a public relations war against the highway, which stops at the city line but continues in the adjacent Franklin-Mulberry area. Her untouched neighborhood - along with several others - is in the middle.

After the highway controversy settled down, Rosemond took on issues of drug selling and other urban ills. All the while, her blocks and its intersecting streets remained stable.

"People identify themselves by neighborhood, and I think that is one of the strengths that Baltimore City has because it gives a real sense of community," Nieland said. "She [Rosemond] has given the gift of a history to these neighborhoods for them to look back on and be very proud of. This type of pride can generate a sense of responsibility for their community and hopefully impact the area in a positive way."

After receiving permission from the Baltimore Heritage board of directors, Nieland set up an agreement with the University of Baltimore's Langsdale Library, where the 55 volumes will be put online.

"Mrs. Rosemond is an amazing community activist who deeply cares about her neighborhood," Nieland said. "She has been involved with almost every aspect of Rosemont's development and has a sincere interest in the well-being and health of her beautiful community. She sees the potential that lies within the land that she lives on, and she recognizes that history plays a key part in moving forward."

online

See a video of Mary Rosemond at baltimoresun.com/maryland

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