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The case for keeping the Calloway house in Baltimore

We, the family of Blanche and Cab Calloway, were recently made aware that 2216 Druid Hill Ave. was the childhood home of the musical siblings from 1920-‘24. At that same time, we were informed that the home (along with the other properties on the block) were slated for demolition sometime after July 1.

Since this discovery, our only request has been that the city hold off on demolition in order to consider other possibilities. We have provided examples of other historic home preservation projects that serve as a point of pride and revenue generator for their respective cities and communities. Just within the last few weeks, the National Trust for Historic Preservation African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund gave out 22 grants for the preservation of homes and buildings like the Calloways’.

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We understand that the local community development corporation would like to demolish all the properties on the block and turn the area into a park named after the Calloways. We appreciate that sentiment. Yet, we believe there is potential to create an authentic, historic landmark and destination that offers a true glimpse into life and humble beginnings of these two history-making Baltimoreans. Experience also shows that an original home or structure is a much more powerful way to engage and inspire visitors and young people than a plaque and statue.

Baltimore has already lost so many black historic "landmarks": the homes of musicians Chick Webb, Eubie Blake and Billie Holiday, as well as the Royal Theatre, which opened in 1922 as the black-owned Douglass Theatre. We can’t afford to lose any more.

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Signage reads "CAB CALLOWAY," "HISTORY HIDES IN DARKNESS," "Black History was made HERE!" and "DO NOT DEMOLISH!" on the front facade of Cab Calloway's former home at 2216 Druid Hill Avenue in Baltimore.
Signage reads "CAB CALLOWAY," "HISTORY HIDES IN DARKNESS," "Black History was made HERE!" and "DO NOT DEMOLISH!" on the front facade of Cab Calloway's former home at 2216 Druid Hill Avenue in Baltimore. (Sameer Rao / Baltimore Sun)

A significant contribution to the building blocks of rock and roll, hip hop, the blues, R&B and rap was generated at 2216 Druid Hill Ave. That row house, and the people who lived there, played an important role in American music history. Blanche Calloway became the first female bandleader to lead an all-male big band on tour. She mentored her younger brother, Cab, in this home; he took voice lessons here.

Later, he went on to become the first African-American to sell 1 million records from a single song. He was the first African-American to publish a dictionary (with six editions), and he was the first African-American to have his own nationally syndicated radio show. Words that we take for granted like “hip, cool and square” – were all popularized by Cab Calloway. Research also shows that Cab Calloway is the person credited for giving New York City it’s nickname, the “Big Apple.” In addition, Cab was the first performer recorded doing “The Buzz,” the dance that later became known as Michael Jackson’s “Moonwalk.” Cab Calloway's song "Minnie the Moocher" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, and Cab Calloway was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.

Jazz legend Cab Calloway, shown here in a 1978 photo, spent four years of his childhood in Baltimore with his sister Blanche at a home on Druid Hill Avenue, from 1920 to 1924. His family is now seeking ways to preserve the property.
Jazz legend Cab Calloway, shown here in a 1978 photo, spent four years of his childhood in Baltimore with his sister Blanche at a home on Druid Hill Avenue, from 1920 to 1924. His family is now seeking ways to preserve the property. (Baltimore Sun file photo)

As is the case with most historical figures, the significance of the contributions of these two individuals is only now coming into clear view -- after their deaths. The “sporting life,” which Cab Calloway observed and sang about while living in Druid Heights, along with his experience working at Pimlico, became the precedent for nearly every African-American male singer of 20th and 21st Centuries who came after him.

Our recommendation is that before the city proceeds with demolition, which is permanent and cannot be undone, that we take time to explore preserving the property -- particularly since the properties on this block have already been vacant nearly 30 years without funding and a plan.

If we can secure an acknowledgment that the property will be spared for six months, we can work toward securing a developer and funding. However, no one wants to invest time and energy into a property when demolition is imminent.

Again, we only recently confirmed that this was Blanche and Cab’s address. Thus, we didn’t come ready with funds and a plan. However, this effort has now begun, in spite of considerable discouragement. We are now humbled to acknowledge that Gov. Larry Hogan joins us in asking our city to temporarily forebear demolition.

Like the young rising stars in Baltimore today, Blanche and Cab Calloway were extremely talented, hard-working, and relentless. Their spirit resonates and still exists in the spaces they occupied. We are asking the city of Baltimore for an opportunity to build upon this rich cultural legacy in a way that inspires future generations of Baltimoreans.

Peter Brooks (www.thecallowayhome.org) is the grandson of Cab Calloway; his brother Christopher still performs worldwide as the Cab Calloway Orchestra.

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