Ophas “Bo” Allen, one of the last of the old-time Baltimore arabbers whose colorful wagons, ponies and ancient street yells enlivened city street life and whose generosity toward others in need was legendary, died Aug. 7 at a granddaughter’s home in Elkton of complications from a stroke. The former longtime West Baltimore resident was 89.
Ophas Allen was born in Baltimore into an arabbing family, the son of Benjamin Allen and his wife, Mildred, and raised in the 800 block of N. Mount St.
In his youth, Mr. Allen suffered from rickets, caused by a lack of vitamin D in the bones, which can result in bowed legs, delayed growth and pain in the pelvis, spine and legs.
“Because of rickets, he didn’t walk until he was about 12,” said a daughter, Dorothy Johns of Randallstown, who with her husband, David Johns, owns and operates the Bruce Street stables, a longtime home for arabbers, in Southwest Baltimore. “And that’s how he got the nickname of Bo because his legs were bowed.”
“His love of horses was a result of a gift of a horse and buggy that came from his mother,” his daughter said. “And during this time, he learned the trade of arabbing from his mother, who in the 1920s was the first African American female arabber in Baltimore.”
Mr. Allen told The Sun in a 2007 interview that he was so thrilled with the gift of the caramel-colored pony with white spots that he named Mr. Bobby, that he “slept with it for several nights.”
He attended city public schools until he was 16, when he quit to join his mother in the arabbing trade. The family business had operated for years out of the Whatcoat Street stables in Sandtown-Winchester, which they owned.
Mr. Allen spent many years clip-clopping up and down city streets and narrow alleys selling fresh vegetables, fruit, fish, clams and crab meat, drawing potential customers with colorful rhythmic yells or howls, many of which date to the 19th century, announcing their day’s wares.
“The term ‘arabber,’ pronounced ‘AY-rabber’ by Baltimore’s practitioners of the trade, is derived from ’street Arab’ — a term thought to go back to the 19th century that described denizens of the street with no fixed addresses or those who sold merchandise on the streets to passersby,” reported The Baltimore Sun in 2018. Homeless children in London at that time were often called “city arabs,” because they were considered nomads and wanderers.
In the 1970s, Mr. Allen purchased a motor truck and entered the moving and hauling business, his daughter said, but still remained in the family’s arabbing business and kept three teams on the street, even though he was no longer personally engaged in it.
“His wagons were painted yellow and red,” his daughter said. “He loved those colors.”
“I raised my children on the wagon,” he explained to The Sun in 2007. “It was rough, but I had to do it because I didn’t have the proper education. I had to do it the best way I could.”
“He was a kind man in his own right,” Ms. Johns wrote in a biographical profile of her father. “If you needed something, he was your go-to man. He had a compassionate heart. If you went to him and you were down on your luck, he wouldn’t hesitate to help you. He’d say, ‘I’m going to give you this money and you better pay your damn bills.’ ”
Until the end of his life, Mr. Allen was still offering assistance to those in need, whether it was food or whatever else was needed, family members said, and was even known to give up his Social Security check if need be.
“He was a great father and grandfather,” Ms. Johns said in a telephone interview, “He was stern, but you knew he loved you.”
Charles Cohen, a Bolton Hill writer and filmmaker, has spent years documenting and writing about arabbers.
“Ophas Allen represents a time where childhood and horses were intertwined,” Mr. Cohen wrote in an email. “Not only did he grow up with horses, thanks to his mother, Mildred Allen, an arabber herself, but he raised his children and other kids in the neighborhood, who got what arabbers call ’horse crazy.’ At his funeral, several people credited him for looking out for them and opening up the world of horses and stable life in the city.”
Kimberly Henson of Randallstown is Mr. Allen’s oldest granddaughter. She told Mr. Cohen when she was 3 or 4 years old, she’d go down to see where her grandfather was selling his fruits and vegetables, and would hang out at the stables to be near the ponies.
“I remember the horses, the wagon, the calls, watermelon, cantaloupe, love it, love it,” Ms. Henson told Mr. Cohen.
“He was hardworking. He was a businessman. He was always delegating, ‘you do this, you do that.’ As a result, people looked up to him and the younger people wanted to get into arabbing, and he taught them everything they know,” she said.
He retired about five years ago, his daughter said, and for the last couple of years resided in Elkton.
Ms. Johns said her father’s hobby was being with horses.
“He was all about horses, and we always said he was horse crazy,” she said. “He’d go to the corral just to watch the horses, and one of his favorites was my old horse Patrick. He’d go to Pimlico to look at them, but my mother wouldn’t allow any gambling.”
Mr. Allen was married for more than 40 years to the former Phyllis Smith, a licensed practical nurse, who died in 2018.
For more than 20 years, Mr. Allen was an active member of Canaan Baptist Church.
Funeral services for Mr. Allen were held Aug. 15 at the Wylie Funeral Home on North Mount Street.
After funeral services were concluded, in keeping with an old arabber tradition, Mr. Allen’s brown casket was placed aboard a horse-drawn wagon.
“It was a wagon hearse,” Ms. Johns explained. “We left the funeral home at 2 p.m. and they took Bo for one last ride through Sandtown-Winchester that lasted for about an hour.”
In addition to his daughter and granddaughter, Mr. Allen is survived by his son, Ophas “Bo” Allen Jr. of West Baltimore; two other daughters, Dalyne Allen of Gwynn Oak and Desiree Gainous of Pikesville: 12 other grandchildren; and 27 great-grandchildren.