James Crockett, a retired real estate salesman who was a pioneering African American Baltimore Fire Board president, died Monday at his sister’s home in Mondawmin. The Ashburton resident was 94.
His son, Brian Crockett, said his father died in his sleep. The death certificate lists natural causes.
“For us in the 1950s and 1960s, he was the symbol of the successful businessman,” said former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the president of the University of Baltimore. “He was a strong supporter of progressive politics and was a leader in Douglass Memorial Community Church, where I first met Mr. Crockett when I was a child.”
Born in Baltimore, Mr. Crockett was the son of Frederick Crockett and his wife, Carrie Robinson. He grew up on the edge of downtown Baltimore near Babe Ruth's Emory Street birthplace. In a 2018 interview in The Baltimore Sun, he recalled making his life in a city where African Americans struggled for good wages and respect. He said he grew up talking to Lithuanian boys across a 3-foot-wide alley that separated the races.
He attended a Fremont Avenue elementary school that was heated by coal stoves. "On Mondays ... 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,” he said in 2018.
Mr. Crockett said that while he grew up in a strait-laced Baptist family, he found his way into the large black movie houses along Pennsylvania Avenue and saw a live Fats Waller performance. And while the Hippodrome Theatre was segregated, he got into it by helping his brother, who owned a moving company. Mr. Crockett remained a fan of the popular music he heard as a young man. He was also an acute observer of the city and its changing demographics.
After graduating from Frederick Douglass High School in 1944, he joined the Army and drove an amphibious duck in the Philippines and on Okinawa. He was awarded a Purple Heart.
As a boy he was fascinated by the Baltimore Fire Department and spent time after school around West Baltimore firehouses.
The department was then segregated, but Mr. Crockett became a member of the 1954 fire academy class, the third that included blacks.
“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,” the Sun article said. “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.
In 1964 he resigned from the department — he said he felt it remained racially biased — and established a West North Avenue real estate office. He also owned a grocery store at Fayette Street and Carrollton Avenue.
Mr. Crockett went on to become president of the Board of Fire Commissioners. In 1971 the Maryland Senate named him to a seat on the Maryland Real Estate Commission; he was the first African American to hold the post.
He also sat on the city’s Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation.
Mr. Crockett was an administrator of the old Cortez W. Peters Business School at 1208 Eutaw Place. The private academy taught typing and office skills to black residents who went on to get Social Security Administration jobs among others.
Mr. Crockett recalled that the school had been founded by Peters, who could type 175 words per minute.
"Cortez liked to play the horses, but he wasn't too good at it," Crockett said. "Nobody is good at playing the horses."
Mr. Crockett also was campaign manager for Walter T. Dixon Sr., who served on Baltimore's City Council in the 1960s. A lawyer and Columbia University graduate, Mr. Dixon was dean of the Cortez school.
Mr. Crockett “was an unassuming, dignified man, always dapper,” said Antero Pietila, a former Sun reporter who interviewed him for his book “Not in My Neighborhood.”
“He had his antenna out everywhere. His recollection was incredible,” Mr. Pietila said. “He got around and he knew everything. He was also typical of a certain generation politically — he began as a Republican.”
Mr. Crockett recalled a visit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Baltimore in the 1960s. Dr. King was speaking at a crowded Baptist church on Bolton Street. Crockett walked in as Republican 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."
Services will be held at 11 a.m. May 29 at the University Baptist Church, 3501 N. Charles St.
In addition to his son, survivors include a daughter, Samadha Mubdi-Bey; his sister, Ethel Ford, all of Baltimore; and four grandchildren. His wife, Mary Crockett, an office manager and an associate broker with her husband, died many years ago.