Not long after moving to Baltimore in 2001, I was struck by how many African American legends the city had produced and the important role they played in historic moments in this country.
The city’s racist past is well-documented, including once having some of the strongest segregation laws in the country. But it also has a resilient and determined Black population that fought against these laws and carved out successful lives despite them. The city also nurtured some of the greatest minds in arts and culture.
Parren J. Mitchell, Maryland’s first Black congressman who ushered in the blueprint for the first minority set-aside program in Congress. Thurgood Marshall, the first African American U.S. Supreme Court justice. Reginald F. Lewis, the first African American to build a billion-dollar company, Beatrice Foods. Jazz great Billie Holiday. These are just a few of the names with strong connections to the city.
Landmarks, institutions and other historic sites throughout the city pay ode to its strong Black history. Here are a few of my favorites, or ones I would like to visit (the list is not all-encompassing by any means):
We often hear about the men of the civil rights movement — the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph — but strong and resilient women also helped lead and shape the cause. In Baltimore, one of those people was Lillie Carroll Jackson, who reportedly felt a need to fight the inequities of the time after a major surgery disfigured her face and inspired her to dedicate her life to public service.
She devoted her life to civil rights by acquiring rental properties that allowed her economic independence. The row home at 1320 Eutaw Place in Bolton Hill was the former long-term residence of Jackson and the center of much of her civil rights activism. Now it is a museum that chronicles her life.
Jackson fought against Jim Crow segregation, leading protests and legal challenges. Known as the “Mother of Freedom,” she helped grow the Baltimore arm of the NAACP into one of the largest chapters in the country and was involved in everything from desegregating the University of Maryland School of Law to leading efforts to end lynching. She also fought to allow Black policemen to wear uniforms for the first time.
She died in 1975 at 86 years old and left her home to her eldest daughter, Virginia Kiah, who turned it into a private museum in 1978. The museum closed in the 1990s, but was restored by Morgan State University in 2012.
You can learn all about Jackson and the state’s civil rights history at the museum. Admission is free with an extra cost for guided tours. There is also a virtual tour.
The great abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass was born on the Eastern Shore, but also has a strong connection to Baltimore. He lived in Fell’s Point as a slave hired out by his owner to work at the shipyards. He said the time there laid some of the foundation for his work later in life. He moved back to the neighborhood in 1864 as a free man and built affordable housing for African Americans, including the house he lived in at 524 S. Dallas St.
The Arch Social Club, located on the historic Pennsylvania Avenue business district, is one of the oldest Black social, cultural and civic organizations in Baltimore and the second oldest secular African American men’s club in the United States.
Like many such social clubs at the time, it started, 117 years ago, as a meetup and fellowship space for Black men. It evolved into a nerve center for activism when African Americans couldn’t frequent whites-only establishments during segregation. Many organized there against Jim Crow laws and other oppressive policies that treated Black people as second-class citizens.
The club also promoted economic empowerment and was a place where people could network and find business opportunities.
With its distinct and ornate entranceway, the Arch Social Club is still a major Pennsylvania Avenue establishment and serves many of the same purposes it did more than a century ago, as African Americans continue to face issues of racism and inequality.
The nondescript factory at 3330 Henry G. Parks Jr. Circle in Northwest Baltimore is now home to a Dietz & Watson deli meat, cheese and sausage manufacturing facility, but its address is a nod to the building’s history.
It was once home to Parks Sausage Company, the first African American-owned company to sell on the NASDAQ stock exchange. The company, started by Parks, would grow from a simple hometown Baltimore brand to a multimillion-dollar business that spanned the country. Its growth was helped by the popularity of its commercial jingle, “More Parks Sausages Mom ... please.”
Dietz & Watson bought the plant in 1999.
Want to see where it all started for Justice Marshall?
Head to his boyhood home at 1632 Division St. — a plaque with his portrait marks the historic building. The simple rowhouse is typical of many in Baltimore and shows his modest but stable beginnings.
During football season, thousands of fans in purple and black Ravens jerseys stream through the Sharp-Leadenhall neighborhood to get from Federal Hill bars to M&T Bank Stadium. They are passing through a neighborhood rich in African American history, though now largely gentrified.
The neighborhood was started by former slaves and German immigrants around 1790. It would develop into a thriving community with a stable and robust business district, with a number of large churches that attracted African American intellectuals. It was also once home to the African Academy of Baltimore, a school for Black children. The school eventually closed and became the Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church (today Sharp Street United Methodist Church), and was not only a place of worship but a hub for advocacy, including working to free slaves.
Unfortunately, much of the community was displaced after an unsuccessful effort to build a highway through the neighborhood.
Now the headquarters of the Baltimore Urban League, the Orchard Street United Methodist Church was founded by Trueman Pratt, a free Black man born a slave in Anne Arundel County. Located in the Seton Hill neighborhood on a quiet, tree-lined street, it is one of the oldest standing structures in Baltimore built by African Americans. It was built in 1838 with additions made over the years. Tunnels under the church were once believe to be a part of the Underground Railroad, but it was never proven as an official stop.