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Jacques Kelly: James Crockett — A look back on 90 years

James Crockett has observed a broad sweep of Baltimore’s history. Seated in the dining room of his Ashburton home, the 93-year-old real estate salesman displays a sharp memory. From a boyhood spent on Haw Street, near Babe Ruth’s birthplace, he made his way through Baltimore in the years when African-Americans had to fight for jobs, a decent living and respect.

He recalls a childhood where he sat on a backyard fence and talked to his neighbors, the Lithuanian boys across a 3-foot-wide alley. “People used coal oil to heat their houses,” he said of the kerosene stove he recalled from his childhood. His elementary school, on Fremont Avenue had coal stoves. “On Mondays, when the janitor was drunk, the older male students lighted the stoves and kept them fed with coal — lots of coal to keep the rooms warm — and set up [protective] screens around them.

After graduating from Frederick Douglass High School in 1944, he joined the Army and wound up driving an amphibious duck in the Philippines and Okinawa. He was awarded a Purple Heart.

Baltimore’s Fire Department had been segregated, and Crockett is proud to have been a member of the third fire academy class that included blacks, in 1954. A year later, he was assigned to a grim task — digging, bucket by bucket, through the embers and ashes of the Tru-Fit clothing store on East Baltimore Street. He and his team were charged with recovering the remains of six firefighters who lost their lives when the structure collapsed.

“It was just like how the firemen worked at the 9/11 site,” he said.

After a decade, he quit the Fire Department — he was frustrated by what he felt were discriminatory practices — and established a successful real estate business on West North Avenue. And 50 years after he left the Fire Department, he found himself serving as president of the Board of Fire Commissioners.

Crockett was also affiliated with a school little known outside Baltimore’s black community. More than 50 years ago, he helped run the Cortez W. Peters Business School at 1208 Eutaw Place, which taught typing and office skills and was an economic gateway for African-Americans who wanted to get jobs at the Social Security Administration and other places. It was founded by Cortez Peters, a Washingtonian who was clocked typing at 175 words per minute. The enterprising Peters had schools in Baltimore, Washington and Chicago.

“Cortez liked to play the horses, but he wasn’t too good at it,” Crockett said. “Nobody is good at playing the horses.”

Crockett was campaign manager for Walter T. Dixon Sr., who served on Baltimore’s City Council in the 1960s. A lawyer and Columbia University graduate, Dixon was dean of the Cortez school.

Crockett is an astute observer of how things work in Baltimore, and the ways and means are not exactly what a civics book on government would tell you.

He tells the story of Tom Smith, a black businessman from Chicago who came to Baltimore and owned a hotel. He also ran “the policy game” — an illegal lottery also known as the numbers game or numbers racket.

“Tom Smith was the most important person in Baltimore,” Crockett said. “If you wanted to become a policeman, you went to Tom Smith. If you wanted to become a fireman, you went to Tom Smith.”

He also said that prospective black teachers had to make a call at the Reservoir Hill home of the city’s superintendent of schools, David Weglein.

“They were essentially hired by the two secretaries who worked for him,” said Crockett.

He also recalled a visit of Dr. Martin Luther King to Baltimore in the 1960s. Dr. King was speaking at a crowded Baptist church on Bolton Street. Crockett walked in as Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin arrived.

“The place was mobbed, but I knew an usher.” Crockett said. “All of a sudden some place opened up, up front.”

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