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'One big knit' — how East Towson, a neighborly African-American community, survived

Adelaide Bentley was born in a home in East Towson in 1928, and for the past 90 years, East Towson is where she has stayed.

“I loved it,” said Bentley, president of the North East Towson Improvement Association. “I had no reason to leave.”

East Towson, a historically black neighborhood in the heart of the suburban town, is the kind of place where people put down roots. It was founded by freed slaves in the 1850s, and Bentley said families like her own have lived in the neighborhood of modest, single-family homes and duplexes for generations.

But the downtown Towson towers that loom over East Towson’s two-story slatted houses are only the most visible sign of what Bentley sees as a shift in her neighborhood.

“It’s really not my neighborhood anymore. … It’s changed,” Bentley said. “At one point in my life it was nothing but black folks. But now it’s different.”

According to a Maryland Historical Trust survey, East Towson’s borders shrank and blurred over the years as downtown Towson grew. News articles over the years reference homes razed to build the District Courthouse, Towsontown Boulevard and other projects.

Today’s East Towson is bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue, Fairmount Avenue, Eudowood Lane, Railroad Avenue and Jefferson Avenue.

One Baltimore Sun article, in 1992, said that at the start of the 1960s, East Towson had as many as 160 single-family, owner-occupied homes. Today, the number is closer to 70.

But historian Louis Diggs, who has documented the histories of African-American communities in Baltimore County, said East Towson did something that another black community in Towson was unable to do: Despite commercialization and development pressure from downtown Towson, it survived.

‘One big knit’

Charles Ridgely, Maryland governor and owner of the Hampton Mansion near Towson, died in 1829, according to a book written by Diggs about East Towson. The estate was built and maintained by enslaved African-Americans — and when Ridgely died, 35 years before the end of the Civil War, his will freed a portion of them. Some of this newly freed black population settled nearby, in Towson.

One recently freed slave, Daniel Harris, was the first African-American to buy a plot of land in East Towson, paying $187.50 in 1853 for one and a quarter acres near what is now Hillen Road, Diggs wrote.

Black families settled in East Towson, building their own homes. It was the kind of place families lived for generations — the kind of place, Bentley said, where she once knew everybody on every street, and where she could go into anyone’s home and be treated like family. “We were one big knit, you know?” Bentley said.

Bentley, born in 1928, said both her parents were born and raised in East Towson after her grandfather settled there and co-founded the Mount Olive Baptist Church at the corner of York Road and Bosley Avenue.

“Everybody was connected … everybody knew each other,” Bentley said. “Your parents could correct me, my parents could correct you. It was that kind of relationship. Everybody looked out for each other.”

The neighborhood was nearly crime-free, Bentley said, and so devoid of traffic that children played ball in the streets. They would see about three cars a day, she said, and “when a stranger came into town, everybody knew it.”

Just northwest from East Towson, south of what is now the Baltimore Beltway, another black community called Sandy Bottom was established, with homes and business surrounding York Road. Diggs said one difference was that in East Towson, many African-American families owned their own homes; in Sandy Bottom, most rented from white landlords.

In the 1960s, as the Baltimore suburbs grew and commercialized after the construction of highways I-83 and I-695, Diggs said those white landowners sold the black residents’ homes and businesses. Today, he said, the only reminders of Sandy Bottom left standing are a church and accompanying cemetery. The rest is a sea of suburban shopping.

East Towson was not immune to the pressures of suburbanization — and as Towson grew, the land became prime real estate. The neighborhood’s western edge, which Diggs said used to stretch to York Road, shrank as homes were razed to build the District Courthouse and the Towson branch library.

"Few historic structures remain at the western end of the community as a result of the expanding commercial and governmental activities of Towson, which is the county seat,” the Maryland Historical Trust inventory says. "Large-scale housing with commercial space on the first floor and office buildings have been constructed on the now-joined building lots that were created as part of East Towson, thereby blurring the edges of the neighborhood with that of Towson-proper. Furthermore, many of the historic structures in this section of East Towson have been lost in favor of parking lots.”

Like many black communities, East Towson also faced challenges of under-investment. A 1964 Baltimore Sun article describes owner-occupied homes interspersed with “rickety, shack-like rental houses in advanced stages of deterioration,” with “appalling” sanitary conditions.

In 1964, the Baltimore Sun reported that County Executive Spiro Agnew proposed a “slum-clearance program” in which the government would purchase the land, raze substandard homes, sell the cleared land to private developers and relocate the families that lived there.

That program never happened, but then the county launched plans to build “Towson Towne Boulevard” – a four-lane bypass around downtown Towson, like Bosley Avenue to the west – straight through the heart of East Towson, across the land of dozens of homes. In 1965, a member of the county’s Human Relations Commission urged East Towson residents to move to white neighborhoods, but with no open-housing legislation and a dearth of affordable options in the county, the East Towson residents had few options.

“Does your Administration support an open-housing law?” one East Towson woman demanded of County Executive Dale Anderson in 1968, according to the Sun.

“Would it do any good to do so?” Anderson replied. “You know what would happen.” Anderson would be voted out of office, he said.

The community fought for years to limit the damage, until eventually in the 1980s a smaller version of Towsontown Boulevard was built, one that would only require a handful of homes to be razed.

“How they even survived, being in as small and tight [a space] as Towson, how they survived is a miracle, really,” Diggs said.

Modern changes

To live in East Towson today is like stepping into the past, according to state Sen. Jim Brochin, who moved to an East Towson home on Lennox Avenue 12 years ago and lived there for five years.

“It was like you know, you see in the movies, the old days … where everybody talks to everybody in the neighborhood,” Brochin said. Life was punctuated by long conversations on front porches, he said, where “next thing you know you just shot the breeze for 45 minutes. That’s how you got news and information.”

But Bentley said much has changed since her early days, when every home in East Towson held a black family and the surrounding communities were largely white.

“It was fine as far as we were concerned,” Bentley said. “They didn’t bother us, and we did not bother them. White folks lived out in West Towson, the blacks lived in East Towson. That’s the way it was — until later years, they found out it was pretty nice over here.”

In his book, Diggs interviewed black residents of East Towson who described shopping at local stores with both black and white owners. One, owned by a black woman named Maggie Savage, sold candies and hot soups, according to resident Alverta Stewart, who was raised in East Towson starting in 1922. Interviewees also described walking to a Jewish-owned general store called Mike’s on Chesapeake Avenue.

Over the past three decades or so, Bentley said the makeup of her neighborhood has changed. The children of longtime families moved elsewhere — including Bentley’s own children — older residents passed away, and in their place people of all colors and ethnicities moved in. Brochin, who is white, was one of those newcomers.

“When I moved to East Towson, I really didn’t look at the color of peoples’ skin,” Brochin said. “I was like, ‘This is a cool neighborhood.’ The walkability is neat, the historic background of one of the first areas where free people lived — I just liked the whole story.”

Bentley no longer knows everybody in her neighborhood. Still, every day, she opens the Carver community center, in the building where she went to school as a girl before schools were integrated. She schedules baby showers and meetings, organizes an annual children’s summer camp, and hosts neighborhood picnics in which the scattered families of East Towson come home to reminisce.

“I had a beautiful life here. And I’m still enjoying my life here,” Bentley said. “It’s just the openness, and the few people that’s left, and friends, and family, you know.” It may have changed, Bentley said, but East Towson is still home.

“Most people don’t know what home is,” Bentley said. “They don’t know what home is.”

asolomon@baltsun.com

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