It was like clockwork. On warm summer evenings at East Baltimore and Madeira streets, Slim, Babe and Abe would prop a television on top of an overturned trash can and plug it into an extension cord coming from one of the nearby rowhomes. There, sitting on a bench facing the street, the three men watched the Orioles as drivers passing by leaned on their horns and shouted greetings.

The bench — long and sturdy enough to hold a quintet — was custom made in the early 2000s for DC “Slim” Hunt, a mainstay of the Butchers Hill neighborhood who was known as the “Mayor of East Baltimore Street.” A fellow Lumbee built the bench at Slim’s request to replace a smaller, dull gray-blue worn-out bench he had salvaged during a hauling gig.

The bench became a gathering spot in the area, which had grown into the heart of Baltimore’s Native American community, mostly populated by Lumbee. The largest concentration lived on East Baltimore Street, one of the neighborhood’s main thoroughfares.

Now, few Lumbee live in the neighborhood. The bench, however, remains — a landmark from a time the tight-knit community affectionately called their neighborhood “the reservation.” Some Lumbee people still come back to sit on the bench and reflect on how it used to be.

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Slim and his daughter Sue Ann Hunt. (Courtesy of Sue Ann Hunt)

“And it’s become known as ‘Slim’s bench,’” said Sue Ann Hunt, Slim’s daughter who grew up on the block, a short walk from Patterson Park.

Most Lumbee migrants came to Baltimore driving north along the route 301 corridor from Lumberton, North Carolina, lured by better jobs and pay in the city’s industrial core. In the Jim Crow South, Lumbee boys and girls were destined to become sharecroppers, picking cotton in the fields just a few years after taking their first steps.

Slim, in his twenties when he arrived, hadn’t planned to stay permanently. At first, many homesick Lumbee people traveled back to the Carolinas on weekends, returning for the Monday night shift. But as more people migrated around the main streets of “the reservation,” they brought their Southerness with them, and it became home.

They started church congregations where they served traditional Lumbee chicken and pastry after services. They formed a softball team that played in Patterson Park. They fell in love, built families, and brought their extended families north too.

Slim and his wife. (Courtesy of Ashley Minner)

A simple wave from Slim, who spotted his future wife walking from church, and she was “in trouble,” her mother said.

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Ashley Minner is one of the Lumbee who never saw “the reservation” at its prime. She didn’t know how much it had changed until she started retracing its history and mapping a walking tour for a museum studies class in 2016. Her first version of the tour only had three stops in a one-block radius.

Since convening her elders and diving into archives, the East Baltimore’s Historic American Indian “Reservation” walking tour now has more than 50 sites, and the latest expansion of the project includes photos of the community. The bench is one of the landmarks.

Minner’s Aunt Jeanette Jones, who at 16 moved from Lumberton to East Baltimore Street, didn’t sit on the bench much as a teen. She liked sitting on Slim’s Harley Davidson instead, getting rides from him around Patterson Park. But she remembers the elders, especially Slim, gathering on the bench.

”Most people, I think, when they see it, they remember Slim sitting there, you know,” said Minner, a community-based visual artist and scholar. “Halfway expect to see him sitting there still.”

An illustrated map of the East Baltimore's Historic American Indian "Reservation."

Before the bench, elders sat on the marble stoops, said Stanton Lewis, who moved to the neighborhood with his mother from Lumberton in 1968. Those who lived on the top floors leaned out the window, joining the banter, gossip and shouting. In the summertime, a man drove from the Carolinas with watermelons piled on the back of his truck — a treat that reminded many Lumbee of their roots.

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They would talk late into the night. There were even times when people fell asleep in the park, and no one bothered them.

It was their “piece of heaven,” Lewis remembered.

The neighborhood at the time consisted of mostly Queen Anne and Victorian-style rowhouses that were converted into three-floored apartment buildings after World War II, according to The Baltimore Sun. Most who lived there rented their homes.

An illustrated map of the East Baltimore's Historic American Indian "Reservation."

Then came the early ’70s and the beginning of the “end of the reservation,” as Minner puts it. The city began to buy buildings on Ann and East Baltimore streets — home to popular restaurants and stores, like Moonlight, Revels’ Grocery Store and Belman’s Delicatessen & Package Goods, and the old location of the East Baltimore Church of God. A quiet bar, a former location to the South Broadway Baptist Church, and a tavern were all razed.

Around 1977, a land bank bought dozens of properties in Butchers Hill using a grant from the Ford Foundation. Lumbee families protested the project and threatened to sue the bank. They became entrenched in a lengthy legal battle, saying they would be priced out and forced to leave their neighborhood.

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Much of what they feared became reality.

Some families left on their own, many back to the Carolinas after they retired. Others bought houses in Baltimore County with yards where their kids could play.

Slim's family sitting on the stoops. (Courtesy of Sue Ann Hunt)

The last enclave of Lumbee people lived on Slim’s block on Madeira Street. When old-timers visited the street it became something of a gathering spot as they lined up on the bench.

On a morning in February, Sue Ann Hunt stood up from the bench and walked down Madeira Street, which is so narrow the kids used to call it an alley. She learned to roller skate on the street’s concrete, where kids rode bikes and played ball games — kickball, dodgeball, you name it.

”See this garage here, with the light paneling?” she asked, pointing at a white garage with a shingle roof. “We would get up there and jump off.”

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The kids might have done it as a dare, she says, though she calls it stupid now. Slim and his friends sat on the bench and the kids played until dusk.

(Courtesy of Ashley Minner)

”My father was up on the corner with his friends and it was all good, you know?” she said.

Now, Minner says, most Lumbee live in Dundalk, including her aunt, who has a bungalow home with a yard. And Butchers Hill has changed, too.

Donna Thomas, Katie Lyons and Marc Mesaros, who all once lived there, know. The friends reunited in February, three decades after they lived on that street, and sat on the bench, just like they saw the three men do many times. They couldn’t pass by the bench in those days without being called to settle an argument, usually between Abe and Babe, who bickered like siblings. Slim, who was always wearing denim overalls, played the role of an observer or a facilitator, Mesaros said. And if the banter got to be too much, he squashed it.

For Lyons, Thomas and Mesaros the bench will always have a special meaning and connection to Slim.

“I met him, right here on the bench,” Lyons said.

clara.longo@thebaltimorebanner.com

Clara Longo de Freitas is a neighborhood reporter covering East Baltimore communities. Before joining the Banner, she interned at The Baltimore Sun as an emerging news and community reporter. She also has design and illustration experience with several news organizations, including The Hill and NPR. 

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