When Americans think of important sites tied to the civil rights era, they think of places like Selma, Alabama, Little Rock, Arkansas, or Memphis, Tennessee. A handful of historians and local leaders want to add Upton’s Marble Hill in West Baltimore, one of the city’s earliest Black middle-class neighborhoods and the home to several activists who shaped the movement.
“Marble Hill is maybe four-by-six blocks — only a handful a blocks — and out of this very small community is this outsized impact both at the local level and nationally for the civil rights movement,” said historian Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage. “And if you follow the story, you almost wonder like, what was in the water? Like, what were they drinking? Because there’s this little hotbed of intellectualism and activism in this tiny neighborhood producing an oversized number of nationally important civil rights leaders.”
Resident leaders such as George McMechen, one of Baltimore’s first Black lawyers, and Lillie Carroll Jackson, a 30-year president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, lived in or around the neighborhood. .
Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice and one of the attorneys who successfully argued for school desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education, also grew up in the neighborhood, as did the NAACP’s former chief lobbyist who pushed for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Clarence Mitchell Jr. And most recently, the neighborhood was part of the district represented by the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, one of the most powerful voices for civil rights in Washington during the Trump era.
Historical groups such as Baltimore Heritage and the Lillie Carroll Jackson Civil Rights Museum provide tours of the museum and significant landmarks in the neighborhood of traditional brick row houses originally built in the late 19th century, hoping to draw more attention to Baltimore’s epicenter for the civil rights movement. .
Hopkins started the tours in 2015 for Baltimore City Public Schools students. The Lillie Carroll Jackson Museum also created a curriculum that “traces the long Civil Rights Movement through individuals right here in Baltimore, well before the 1950s,” according to Iris Barnes, the museum’s associate director and curator.
But now tours are offered to just about anyone who’d like to attend.
The neighborhood’s legacy in the struggle for equality dates to shortly after the Civil War, and the prominent role it would go on to play in the 20th century was not by happenstance. The Jim Crow-era restrictive covenants that prevented Black Baltimoreans from buying houses in areas adjacent to Upton’s Marble Hill ended up inspiring the very activism that brought them down.
“Baltimore is so critical in studying the civil rights movement because much of the work that took place here preceded what we traditionally call the civil rights era — the 1950s and 1960s — by leading and supporting the work to that time period. But the work here was mostly taking place with [Lillie Carroll] Jackson and Thurgood Marshall in the 1930s,” Barnes said.
“And if we really wanted to look at resistance and housing segregation, we could certainly go back as far as Dr. Harvey Johnson and Ashbie Hawkins during the post-Civil War era,” she added.
Rev. Harvey Johnson of Union Baptist Church established the Mutual United Brotherhood of Liberty in 1885 to galvanize Black lawyers to attack inequalities after the Civil War.
Baltimore native Alvin Hathaway, who also grew up in Marble Hill and was the lead pastor at Union Baptist from 2007-2021, said that Johnson organized the first collective fighting for civil rights in Baltimore. But his work spilled over nationally and contributed to the framework for what became the NAACP, which was in founded in New York City in 1909.
After the Great Baltimore Fire in 1904, the mayor deemed many of the Black neighborhoods in the southern part of the city uninhabitable.
“Many Black Baltimoreans were concentrated downtown, lived where we now have Mercy Hospital, and that was called the Gallows,” Hathaway said. “And Union Baptist leads that migration and builds its main sanctuary at 1219 Druid Hill Ave., in 1905, and it has a lot to do with this becoming the largest historic African American district which is here.”
In 1910, McMechen — a Black Yale law alumnus — bought a home at 1834 McCulloh Street, located in Marble Hill, according to an article by Garrett Power of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. The Baltimore City government responded by adopting a residential segregation ordinance, known as the West Ordinance, restricting Black people to designated blocks. Black Baltimoreans could not buy a home on a block with 51% white ownership, and whites could not buy a house on a block with 51% Black ownership, Hopkins said.
According to Hopkins, places like Harlem Park, Lafayette Square and Druid Heights “flipped from predominantly white to predominantly Black over a decade,” and neighborhoods like Marble Hill were pretty desirable.
“So it was it was very literally segregating Baltimore block-by-block. And that was its purpose,” he said.
Laws like the West Ordinance were adopted by other cities like Louisville, Kentucky, and St. Louis, Missouri. But Hawkins, another attorney and a law partner of McMechen’s, continued to fight segregation ordinances in the courts with the backing of NAACP. Hawkins submitted an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case Buchanan v. Warley, in which the justices found such racial ordinances violated the 14th Amendment.
Alexis Ojeda-Brown, the program and education coordinator at the Jackson museum, said laws like the West Ordinance provided the spark for these Baltimore leaders to lay the foundation of their civil rights work in places in the neighborhood, such as church buildings.
“Black churches during the late 1800s up until, you know, the ‘60s, were at the center of civil rights. Not only did they uplift people with their sermons in their faith, but they provided a physical space for people to gather without the outside interruptions of Jim Crow,” she said.
In Marble Hill, there’s Bethel AME Church along with Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church and Union Baptist Church, and although Douglas Memorial Community Church is not historically Black, it’s still known for its role in the civil rights movement.
Ojeda-Brown said that these churches, which are stops along the neighborhood tour, were large enough spaces that could accommodate hundreds of people to organize and lead protests, as well as invite other national leaders of the movement to speak, such as W.E.B. Du Bois or Mary McLeod Bethune. These churches also served as the meeting space for the NAACP and for the City-Wide Young People’s Forum that was started by Lillie Carroll Jackson’s daughter, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, who married Clarence Mitchell Jr. at Sharp Street Church.
Although Hathaway isn’t preaching every Sunday anymore, he is still leading the effort to restore Public School No. 103, built in 1877, after the building had been vacant for more than 30 years.
The school, which Marshall attended from 1914 to 1921, will serve as a cultural center in Upton’s Marble Hill that will be renamed in his honor: the Justice Thurgood Marshall Amenity Center.
“Due to segregation, the elementary school educated so many in this community,” Hathaway said. “You have Clarence Mitchell Jr., George Russell, who becomes the city’s first Black solicitor who later partnered with DLA Piper law firm. You have Carl Murphy who became the ... publisher of The Baltimore Afro-American. You have Donald Murray, who later goes to University of Maryland law school when Thurgood Marshall takes his case and gets him admitted. I mean you just go down a list of names of people that went to that school, and it’s important to me to preserve that.”
He said the center is expected to be completed in time for Marshall’s birthday on July 2.
The school site is always the last stop for Hopkins’ neighborhood tours. At the end of each tour, many people remark that they knew Baltimore had a role in the civil rights movement, “but never knew how rich or how important,” Hopkins said.
“And my response is always to ask them to go home and share at least one or two names and stories that they’ve heard on the tour, whether it’s Harvey Johnson or Lillie Carroll Jackson, or Clarence Mitchell Jr. or George McMechen, and try to help these important people and what they did become household names,” he said.