One of Baltimore’s greatest statemen lived at the corner of Carrollton and Lafayette in West Baltimore across the street from Lafayette Square, long ago nicknamed the square of the churches for all the splendid churches built around it.
When Parren Mitchell died in 2007 at age 85, having served in Congress for 16 years, hundreds paid their respects at the St. James Episcopal Church across the park. A friend then purchased his home, a three-story brick town house.
The purchase ensured the original details of the structure were not remodeled into oblivion. Five years ago, she gifted the house to the Upton Planning Committee, an organization that seeks to preserve the area’s historic past and uplift the community by, among other things, restoring structures of historic significance.
To that end, local leaders that included state Sen. Antonio Hayes, and councilmen Nick Mosby and Eric Costello, gathered on the street corner on a windy, chilly afternoon Wednesday to formally announce plans to turn the aging house into what they are calling the West Baltimore Civic and Entrepreneurship Center. The transformed building, which once hosted leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, will be used as a meeting space, offices, and a gallery that will showcase mementos of Mitchell’s life and career in Congress.
The project is expected to cost $2.2 million and take at least two years to complete. The state has pledged $1.5 million toward the cost of construction.
“This is meant to be an offering to the neighborhood,” said Jennifer Goold, executive director of the Neighborhood Design Center, which revitalizes shared spaces for the greater public good, with issues like health, crime, and equity in mind. She suggested the new Mitchell house could host everything from family reunions to retreats. All while it will raise awareness of Mitchell’s contributions as a politician and reformer.
“While preserving this landmark and the culture of this part of West Baltimore, we are also creating a platform for future leaders,” Wanda Gibson-Best, director of the Upton Planning Committee, said in a statement thanking state leaders for providing the bulk of the funding.
Mitchell was the first African American elected to Congress from Maryland, serving from 1971 to 1987 as the representative from the 7th district. He was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus and made civil rights and affirmative action cornerstone causes of his political career.
The Mitchell family is something of political royalty in Baltimore. Parren’s brother Clarence Mitchell was the head of the NAACP’s Washington office and an advisor to Lyndon Johnson during the Civil Rights Movement. The courthouse on Calvert Street is named for him.
“Anyone that knows anything about civil rights, they know that civil rights started right here in Baltimore,” said Shauntee Daniels, director of the Baltimore National Heritage Area, who spoke at the unveiling.
Before being elected to Congress, Mitchell served as an officer of the 92nd Infantry during World War II and received a Purple Heart. He graduated from Morgan State University and from the then-segregated graduate school of the University of Maryland, which he successfully sued for admittance.
Photographs from his childhood, his Army years, and his career in Congress were displayed Wednesday inside the grand parlor of the townhouse. The original features of the 150-year-old house are expected to be preserved – many of its architectural elements were saved and stored in the basement – while a modern addition will be built at the rear to accommodate an elevator.
The historic preservation project was touted as a true community resource in a neighborhood lacking them. The house next door to the Mitchell house was boarded up. So were many others within walking distance, doors and windows belonging to once opulent homes, speaking to a fissure between the past and present.
Connecting the two is another goal of restoring the home.
“As important a figure as he (Mitchell) was, a number of young people don’t know who he is,” said architect Nakita Reed, whose firm Quinn Evans will lead the renovation, which is expected to take at least two years. “Once memory turns into history, it often gets lost.”
Markus Trent was 13 before he had ever heard of Parren Mitchell, even though they’re from the same neighborhood and attended the same high school, Frederick Douglass.
“All I saw growing up were white men in those positions,” said Trent, 33, who went to Wednesday’s ceremony seeking inspiration for his own organization, Fathers Fighting For Fathers, a mentorship program that encourages men to play more constructive roles in their families.
“Institutions like this, people like this need to be highlighted so this generation can learn from them,” Trent said standing in front of the Mitchell house. “All kids have is music and TikTok. This is concrete. This is history.”