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Protesters decry razing of landmark

Outrage over the demolition of a Baltimore rowhouse where MLK, Eleanor Roosevelt, Clarence Mitchell, Jr. met.

Baltimore's first African-American city councilman lived in the three-story rowhouse. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt and Clarence Mitchell Jr. attended meetings there.

The NAACP saw the old building on Druid Hill Avenue in Upton as so crucial to the civil rights movement that the organization dubbed the place "Freedom House" decades ago.

Now it's a pile of rubble, torn down several weeks ago with little fanfare, and preservationists and activists are expressing outrage.

They are questioning why Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which has owned the property since the early 1980s, had the building razed. They contend church leaders didn't consult neighborhood residents, former civil rights leaders or preservationists before exercising the demolition permits they acquired through the city in September and October.

"You don't come into Baltimore and tear down our history," Louis Fields, a tour guide of African-American historic sites, told about three dozen people at a rally across the street from the demolished building Thursday afternoon.

The site lies only yards beyond city and state historic preservation zones that could have shielded it from demolition.

Two staffers at Bethel AME said the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, senior pastor of the church, wasn't available Thursday to comment. Several trustees either couldn't be reached or declined to comment.

Only a chimney and the rowhouse's arched doorway remained standing Thursday.

According to public records, Bethel AME acquired a permit in September from the Baltimore Housing Department for nonstructural alterations and limited demolition, including the removal of debris, interior drywall and nonload-bearing walls, at Freedom House.

Steva Komeh, president of the Marble Hill Neighborhood Association, said she was "shocked" to see the activity and called Eric T. Costello, the city councilman for the district that includes the site, to request that the city investigate and, if possible, stall the project.

The building at 1234 Druid Hill Ave. is located just beyond the boundaries of Marble Hill, one of the city's first middle-class African-American neighborhoods.

Costello said Thursday that he did look into the matter. He said he checked with city officials, only to find that opponents had little, if any, legal recourse.

"I certainly recognize that the building has significant historical value," he said. "But because it's a privately owned property, because the [owners] have a valid permit, and because it's not located in a historic district, not much can be done."

Public records show the city issued a full-fledged demolition permit Oct. 16.

Spokesmen for the housing agency could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Several protesters at the rally said they'd heard nothing about the demolition until Wednesday and early Thursday, when an official at Baltimore Heritage, a historic-preservation nonprofit, posted an article about the matter on its blog as well as a notice on Facebook.

Fields, longtime civil rights leader Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham and others spread the word among friends and colleagues.

One who described herself as "shocked and appalled" at the news was Helena Hicks, the longtime civil rights firebrand who took part in a 1955 sit-in at Read's Drug Store that helped force the chain to desegregate its lunch counters.

Hicks, 81, paced the sidewalk at the rally, alternately gazing at the remains of Freedom House across the street and expressing incredulity that city leaders failed to take steps to preserve a civil rights landmark.

She directed her ire at Reid. She remembered his late mother, Adrenis Carter Reid, was active in the civil rights movement.

Hicks said she was unhappy that the Bethel pastor did not show up to face protesters.

"Why isn't he out here?" she said.

Another protester, Kelly Cross, said the loss was "shocking" not just in terms of civil rights history but also architecturally. He wondered why members of Bethel AME couldn't have found a way to do something more constructive with the site.

"That's a sizable congregation with a lot of powerful connections," said Cross, president of the Old Goucher Community Association. "People around the world won't come to Baltimore if we didn't have sites like this. Why couldn't they find a solution?"

Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage, handed out fliers naming other historic sites in the neighborhood that could face similar fates if city leaders fail to develop solutions.

"We lost Freedom House — for some of us, unexpectedly — even though it was not just a hub but the hub for civil rights in Baltimore," he said through a loudspeaker. "That makes me cry. … Shame on us if we can't convert this energy into preserving other [historic] buildings."

Historic preservationist Eli Pousson said preliminary research suggests the adjacent rowhouse at 1232 Druid Hill Ave. might also be significant to local African-American history.

Bethel AME has secured a permit for nonstructural alterations to that building, city records show.

Hicks recalled attending meetings in the building as a girl in the 1950s, when she said local civil rights pioneer Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson was teaching young people the ABC's of demonstrating.

That legacy, she said, is just one of many factors that made the property so significant to African-American history.

Harry Sythe Cummings, who in 1890 became the first African-American elected to a seat on the Baltimore City Council, once lived there, she said; later it became an office for the local chapter of the NAACP.

Fields said it was his hope that Reid, who lives in Baltimore County, would "come into the city and meet with" those who disagree with the church's decision.

Hicks said she planned to bring "a lot of friends" to Bethel AME for a protest Sunday morning so "Mr. Reid has to walk through us" on his way in.

"This has been a disgrace, and that's how I've been taught to get results," she said.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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