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In its day, Baltimore County's Turner Station was a beloved African-American enclave. Now some seek a revival

It’s Friday in Turner Station, which means Speed’s Barber and Beauty Shop on Main Street is packed and tales of the good old days are flowing as freely as the gray trimmings from Rudy Dews’ head.

Dews, 68, grew up in this historically African-American neighborhood south of Dundalk. He recalls a boyhood of shooting marbles on the sidewalk, crabbing in the Patapsco River and playing cowboys and Indians in the woods.

Barber Zellious Allen, 72, remembers a community where no one locked their doors, “everybody knew everybody,” and kids like Frizzell “Pee Wee” Gray — later known as congressman Kweisi Mfume — and future NFL legend Calvin Hill were just buddies down the block.

They describe a time and place where church and family ruled and there were so many thriving businesses that no one needed to go anyplace else.

“You had it all right here — movies, barbers, grocery stores, churches, schools — so why leave Turner Station?” says Allen, who has cut hair in the community since he was just 13.

Now it’s Turner Station that has left — or in many ways simply faded away. Residents are fewer and less neighborly, crime and drugs are a concern, buildings need repair.

But a few dozen elders are fighting to bring it back.

Longtime shop owner Courtney Mears-Speed is a tireless advocate and organizer. Mary Coleman studies and shares local history. And the circle of retirees behind the Turner Station Conservation Teams, a nonprofit, have attracted investment and helped get a new community center built.

The people at the barber shop say reviving Turner Station won’t be easy, but that it would be foolish to discount those who came of age in its golden era.

Allen looks up from his cutting.

“With these folks, nothing is impossible,” he says.

The Meadows and the Point

Turner Station is a “remarkable and complicated community,” says Louis S. Diggs, a local historian whose 2003 book, “From the Meadows to the Point,” told its story.

The place was born in an out-of-the-way spot, before racial integration and as a direct consequence of racial prejudice. Some say that isolation was actually the key to its success.

Everyone agrees an entrepreneurial spirit brought it to life.

Bordered by Dundalk Avenue to the north and Fleming Park to the south, by Main Street (an extension of Broening Highway) to the west and Bear Creek to the east, this square mile of land 8 miles from downtown Baltimore was an empty, marshy pasture when Joshua Turner, a white businessman, bought it in the 1880s.

He planned to use it to harvest seagull guano. But the emergence of the steel and shipbuilding industries across the creek in Sparrows Point changed all that.

When the company that would become Bethlehem Steel built a town for its employees, it set aside a small enclave for the black workers who had moved from the South as part of the Great Migration. But as business boomed, the company declined to expand that housing, leaving black employees to fend for themselves in segregated southeastern Baltimore County.

Some of those barred from living in nearby communities like Dundalk and Middle River built log cabins in “the Meadows,” a clearing near what is now Speed’s, and moved in.

Just before the turn of the century, a young African-American transplant, Anthony Thomas, persuaded Turner to sell parcels of his property to the squatters. Thomas, regarded as the community’s founder, even set up a savings and loan to help them.

Mears-Speed, 78, moved to Turner Station half a century ago and loved its church- and family-oriented culture so much she never left.

She describes its growth — how the first of its 12 churches, St. Matthew United Methodist, was in place by 1900; how a school, grocery store, doctors’ and dentists’ offices and an undertaker followed; and how, by the mid-20th century, a community of 10,000 people, virtually all of them African-American, was thriving. Every dollar spent changed hands an average of eight times before leaving the community, according to town historians.

By the 1950s, Turner Station boasted its own junior-senior high school, an amusement park with rides, a beach, a 2,000-seat ballpark and a sandlot Negro leagues baseball team, an air-conditioned 700-seat movie theater, three successful taxicab businesses, and a nightclub. The Adams Cocktail Lounge drew big-name black acts such as Redd Foxx, Cab Calloway and Pearl Bailey.

Mary Coleman, 75, remembers working in the movie theater — secretly, so as not to displease her church-going grandfather — and generally living in a place where she could walk anywhere, anytime, and feel safe.

She didn’t appreciate Turner’s uniqueness until 1960, she says, when she left to attend Morgan State College, where her friends couldn’t get enough of her stories.

“None of them had grown up in a place like this,” says Coleman, a retired university administrator and chair of the Turner Station Historical Committee, a group that promotes awareness of the town’s past. “They were amazed there could be so much going on in one small community.”

Fifty years later, Diggs agrees. The author of 12 books on African-American life in Baltimore County, he has documented the existence of 40 black settlements in county history.

Turner Station is the only one that survives, he says, and he deems it no coincidence.

“I don’t think there has ever been a community of such smart, industrious people in the state of Maryland, maybe even in the country,” he says. “I’ know I’ve never come across one.”

Extraordinary achievement

Take a tour of Turner Station — down the curves of New Pittsburg Avenue, along Sollers Point Road, to Fleming Park in the shadow of the Key Bridge — and you’ll see a community of historic highlights marked by signs of decline.

Blocks of tiny row houses remain intact, most of them tidily maintained but some abandoned. Red-brick Union Baptist Church — which used to be the movie theater — towers above Main Street, its facade in need of a power wash.

On the streets where children once walked to school, young men cluster in groups midday, seemingly with nothing to do.

Mears-Speed, a devout Christian who calls herself “Servant Speed,” makes constant rounds of the neighborhood, rolling down her car window to greet children, teens and old-timers by name.

“Hello, Mother Speed!” many say.

“We’re trying to bring back businesses, home ownership, a whole way of life that is disappearing,” she says.

The way of life in Turner Station fostered extraordinary achievement, in spite of the racial prejudice that marked the era.

Anthony Thomas and his son Joseph, a doctor, became prosperous entrepreneurs who are remembered for their investments in the community. World War II military heroes such as Arthur Hancock, a Buffalo Soldier who fought with the U.S. Army in Italy, and Milton Holmes, a pilot who served with the elite Tuskegee Airmen, were sons of the community.

Mfume was a sickly child who grew up to become a five-term Maryland congressman and and an influential eight-year president of the NAACP. Dunbar Brooks was the first African-American president of the Baltimore County school board.

Robert Curbeam Jr., 56, became a NASA astronaut who went on multiple spacewalks and Hill, 72, was a star running back for the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins.

The late heavyweight boxer Larry Middleton fought greats such as Jerry Quarry and Ken Norton. Puppeteer Kevin Clash popularized the Sesame Street character Elmo before allegations of misconduct ended his career with the show.

Guitarist Robert “Wawa” Legrand has performed with Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick, while jazz trombonist and composer Douglas Purviance is a Grammy Award winner.

And Mears-Speed has spent two decades spreading the word that Turner Station was home to Henrietta Lacks, the housewife and mother whose cancer cells, harvested without her knowledge at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951, have helped produce countless breakthroughs in biomedical research.

Mfume and Hill, lifelong friends, agree they learned what matters in Turner Station.

“We were taught to work hard, play by the rules, love your country, cherish your faith, respect the elderly,” says Mfume, 70, now president of the board of regents at Morgan State. “I like to say Turner Station taught me the value of values. I believe those values formed a foundation for everything I’ve been fortunate enough to accomplish.”

Hill, 72, a consultant with the Cowboys, relates an incident that epitomized those values.

When he was a Little League baseball player, his team had so few resources the boys had to wear T-shirts dyed and stenciled by parents. When an all-star team from a richer community came to play, all decked out “like the Orioles,” Hill’s coach, the Turner Station legend Osceola Smith, stepped in.

“I can remember Mr. Smitty gathering us and saying, ‘I know you’re looking at those uniforms,’ ” Hill recalls. “He said, ‘Oh, they’re pretty. But let me tell you something, those uniforms can’t hit or field. We can beat those guys.’ And we did.

“We learned we were as good as anybody if we stayed focused and did things the right way.”

Seeking revival, brick by brick

In some ways, Diggs says, Turner Station became a victim of its own success. Changing times, for better and for worse, also played a role.

Once its founders achieved financial stability, their children left for college or other opportunities and generally didn’t come back. Civil rights laws meant they had more choices about where to live than their parents had.

As the local steel industry began fading, so did the population, which sank to 1,000 or so in 1990 and has settled at about 3,000.

And as businesses folded and home values fell, outsiders swept in to buy houses, renting most units to newcomers less interested in the community and its history.

By 2003, The Sun reported that alleys and sidewalks were crumbling, a lack of streetlights had attracted drug dealers, older houses had become safety hazards, and zoning rules so limited lot size it was hard to build homes attractive to families

What remained was a more diverse, less coherent, less religious community — and a swath of elders who remembered Turner Station as it once was, and had a passion for bringing it back.

Mears-Speed, whom Diggs calls “indispensable,” takes a personal, street-level approach. She’s a Girl Scout leader, a churchgoer, a store owner, a babysitter and a daily visitor of the elderly.

She has improvised an array of ad hoc neighborhood organizations to advance what she calls her life mission — to “Save the Nation of Turner Station.”

Not all have gained the traction of the Henrietta Lacks Legacy Group.

Now chaired by Adele Newson-Horst, coordinator of the women’s and gender studies at Morgan State, the nonprofit is a force in the neighborhood, where members hold an annual luncheon and Lacks day, lead tours and run a video and essay contest for schoolchildren each February that draws entries from across the country.

The group’s goals: to promote youth involvement in STEM, raise Lacks' profile and strengthen a community Newson-Horst considers an exemplar.

“Turner Station is important because it’s a symbol of what black communities have been and what they can be,” she says. “And it has promise of rising again.”

Gloria Nelson agrees. A retired human resources official, she’s president of the Turner Station Conservation Teams. Launched in the 1990s under another name, the group worked with then-Baltimore County Councilman John Olszewski Sr., father of the current county executive, to develop a 2003 conservation plan that included dozens of proposals for rehabilitating Turner Station.

Using them as blueprints, Nelson’s volunteer team has notched a string of successes.

They worked with the county to develop the Sollers Point Multipurpose Center, which includes a gym, an auditorium, a county library branch, a computer center and a Turner Station museum.The group also helped attract $25 million in private and government investment to renovate Lyon Homes, a federal housing project built in the 1940s that has been converted into rental property.

The volunteers regularly hold fairs to educate renters about programs that can lead to home ownership. They are also trying to persuade the Army Corps of Engineers to provide money to bolster the eroding shoreline in Fleming Park.

Nelson says they put in what amounts to full-time hours, meeting in one incarnation or other almost daily, and that their togetherness has given the community a voice.

“There have been individuals fighting [for Turner Station] for a long time, but they haven’t always been so well organized,” she says. “We draw on each other’s talents. That’s one reason we get things done.”

Not everyone agrees on how to go about restoring Turner Station. Mears-Speed and Coleman were among those who fought the community center project because it involved razing the old high school, a Turner Station landmark.

“It’s important to do more than preserve what was,” says Edythe Brooks, Dunbar’s widow and a team leader. “We have to look forward for the sake of the children here.”

The factions agree on the larger goal — to preserve the essence of what made Turner Station such a special place, whatever that might look like in a more mobile, more integrated 21st century.

That can be done, Coleman says, but only with the kind of determination her great uncle Dr. Joseph Thomas showed as he helped build the place.

“We have to keep hammering to tear down whatever walls people have put up that keep them from helping,” she says. “But you can’t hit it with a sledgehammer. We’re going to do it brick by brick.”

jonpitts@baltsun.com

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