Many people are familiar with Mt. Vernon’s major landmarks — Mount Vernon Place, the Washington Monument, the Peabody. Some residents know it for the 20th-century gay and arts revivals that nicknamed it Baltimore’s Greenwich Village. But fewer know Read Street and its 19th-century Black history.
Read Street has become a vibrant community of Black-owned residences, buildings, and businesses with at least five Black-owned stores opening in the just two years since pandemic lockdowns abated. Many of them take in each other’s mail, clean each other’s garbage, collaborate on events and, just generally, look out for one another.
This Read Street renaissance returns the street to a time when Black-owned business flourished there.
“We work hard for every bit here. We know this used to be one of the great Black business areas in the city,” said Bluestone owner Kyle Johnson. “Those are big shoes to fill, but Motivation Motivates. We all want each other to succeed.”
Johnson converted the corner store Jay’s on Read into his custom jewelry business after being quoted an unaffordable price on a custom ring. He apprenticed as a goldsmith to make it himself.
Mount Vernon Records was opened by William Hicks in 2021. The store, whose environment is as much an attraction as what’s for sale, has two turntables and a microphone right at the entrance where Hicks teaches people to DJ. Records and art line the walls. Walk by the door at any hour and you’re liable to see Hicks talking with a customer or friend.
A little farther down the block, at 211 W. Read St., is Anika Hobbs and her clothing store Nubian Hueman. Working as a regional manager for H & M in the early-modern social-media days, Hobbs said, access and opportunity for Black creatives wasn’t the same as it is today— ”Black people and Black products weren’t the focus.”
Read Street is once again filled with Black businesses.
Just a few doors down from Johnson and Hicks, 48 Read St. was once the home of the “Oblate School for Colored Girls,” the first and oldest Black Catholic school for girls in the country. In 1828, with no free public schools available to Black children in Baltimore, Mother Mary Lange, already the founder of the country’s first order of Black Catholic sisters, founded the Oblate School.
Across the street, at 213 West Read, Edward J. Fatin, a Black “public caterer, waiter, and furnisher for parties,” listed a business address. Fatin got rich enough from this work that a 1912 newspaper notice valued his estate at $25,000, about $800,000 in today’s money.
But Read Street has always gone through “waves and waves,” said Hicks. It went through another at the turn of the 20th century.
When Mt. Vernon expanded north in the 1870s, it took the Oblate School with it, according to the Mount Vernon Conservancy. Park Avenue, which originally dead-ended at Read Street, needed to grow, and the school stood in the way. The Oblate School and a little group of nearby houses were demolished for Park’s growth, like many buildings in Black neighborhoods. This created the strange little dog-leg that is Tyson St. today.
The demolition also created space for the Albion Hotel, an upscale resort for elite white visitors. The second edition of Baltimore’s “Blue Book: Society Visiting List” — a directory of city affluents — listed the Albion as a notable stay. And while the eligible blue bloods in the Blue Book were white, a handful of the entrepreneurs listed, like Fatin, were Black.
As the 20th century continued, so did the gentrification of Midtown.
Tyson Street, named for Elisha Tyson, an abolitionist who provided safe houses along the Underground Railroad, began, by the mid-1940′s, to turn into something like Baltimore’s Greenwich Village. Young artists bought up brick rowhomes and remodeled them, painting the outsides vibrant colors, decorating the insides a midcentury cottage core. They sold artwork from their homes, like a DIY Artscape.
The change also pushed out resident Black families. In 1948, The Baltimore Evening Sun was already reporting Black neighbors saying: “They don’t want to mix with us, but they come pushing us out. White folks got no right to put us out.” From 1940 to 1970, the Black population of the tract decreased by about 900 people, reaching a low of 1%, just 58 people, while Mount Vernon as a whole was still 50-50.
But between 1970 and 1980 about 1,000 Black people moved back to Read Street, and, equally important, so did Margurite Shropshire-Addison.
In 1983, Margurite, known as Maggie, moved her clothing store, Maggie’s Place, from now-closed Old Town Mall to 213 W. Read, the very same building Edward Fatin catered from 70 years earlier. She was the first Black woman to own a building in either commercial zone, according to an July 1989 Afro Magazine article.
A few years later, her brother opened a shoe store, Shoes in the Attic, in the attic upstairs. Then her sister opened tailor Tiny Taylor across the street. And Maggie opened Headlines Hair Studio at 208 Read St. Her husband opened The Nu U, a men’s clothing store on the second floor of the building. All told, the Shopshire family ran five stores on one block of Read, often simultaneously, through the ’80s and ’90s.
Marcia “Muffey,” Shropshire, Maggie’s daughter, ran her business, Indiginal Wellness, from 213 until last month, where she decided to close it after a lifetime of involvement, one way or another, with the space. She grew up there, working in the store from age 12, modeling, marketing, going to New York on purchasing adventures.
“For me, my life has come full circle. I’m grateful to see small Black business grow on the block and in Mount Vernon as a whole.”
And while most of those business have moved out of the Shropshire family, the sense of the family remains.
Partway through our conversation, William Hicks stepped outside to flag someone down. Hicks was selling a friend his Oculus to give the kids for Christmas. “I’ve got like 150 games on there,” he told Dura House, a long-time friend and member of Baltimore’s music scene.
And, after a pause: “This guy is one of the best dancers I’ve ever seen. He could run up a wall and do a flip” while dancing.
“I still do that. It keeps me healthy,” said House.
I asked him, Did I just get lucky? In a story about community and business resurgence, I caught a Christmas business deal between two old friends—real Hallmark stuff.
“That’s just how it is here,” he responded, “We’re looking out for each other.”
This article has been corrected to reflect that Maryland did not have anti-literacy laws for enslaved people. The reference to the source claiming it did has been removed.