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Mobtown Beat

Alvin K. Brunson

In Appreciation

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 4/16/2008

Nov. 14, 1958-March 30, 2008

A few hours after attending the funeral of her friend, Alvin Kirby Brunson, Rosa Pryor-Trusty sat down at her desk to work on the weekly "Rambling Rose" column she writes for the Afro-American newspaper. She had been thinking for nearly a week about the words she would use to describe her dear friend, since Brunson died in a building collapse on March 30. Six days after his death, the Rambler was still short on words.

For Pryor-Trusty, the loss of Brunson, 49, meant more than the loss of a friend. Since 2000, when he founded his Center for Cultural Education, a nonprofit organization formed to educate people about Baltimore's African-American history and culture, Brunson was a ray of hope for people living in the Pennsylvania Avenue community. Brunson took hundreds of people on his Thurgood Marshall/Billie Holiday Walking Heritage Tours of Pennsylvania Avenue, during which he would stop at famous attractions, like 1632 Division St., where Thurgood Marshall grew up, or the former site of the Royal Theatre at 1329 Pennsylvania Ave., one of the only places where performers of color, like Holiday and Cab Calloway, could perform in Baltimore during the Jim Crow era. Brunson also took African-American history to local schools, libraries, churches, civic organizations--anywhere he could find an audience with which to share the message that this history should be preserved and that Pennsylvania Avenue should be revitalized.

Sadly, his message was cut short when Brunson was working to revitalize a building across the street from his Center for Cultural Education at 541 Wilson St. His plan for the building was to use it to expand his center into a cultural museum.

"This is a huge personal loss for me, but an even bigger loss for all of the people who would have been enriched by the rich history and culture focused around Pennsylvania Avenue that Alvin shared and hoped to share," says Pryor-Trusty, a former musician and entertainment manager who once played piano and saxophone for the group she started back in the 1950s called Little Johnny and the Twilights. Through innumerable presentations at local schools and community events, Brunson became as much an advocate as an historian for the Avenue. He also lived in the community he served, even though he earned a master's degree in education and was a former district manager for The Sun. He had also worked as a technical writer for the Maryland Office of Human Resources.

"He could have chosen to invest time in another career and perhaps make more money," Pryor-Trusty says. "But instead, he was committed to preserving the history of the Avenue area. He loved the Pennsylvania Avenue community."

At community events, sometimes Brunson would exhibit his traveling museum aside a display of Pryor-Trusty's book African American Entertainment in Baltimore. He wanted to remind people in a neighborhood long challenged by urban blight, lack of resources, and poverty that the Avenue's historic legacy is that it was once the center of black life and entertainment in Baltimore. In a City Paper story about Pennsylvania Avenue ("Street of Dreams," Feb. 2, 2005), Brunson provided historical context for Pennsylvania Avenue, which was first called Wagon Road back in 1818, and then Hookstown Road, and then Pennsylvania Road because it took travelers all the way to the state with the same name. He asserted that the first black slaves from Haiti settled near the first block of the Avenue at Pennsylvania Street to help build St. Mary's Seminary. "Theater owners saw the influx of blacks into this area as a means by which to make money," Brunson said in "Street of Dreams."

Over the years Brunson served as an expert on Pennsylvania Avenue for several newspapers and he provided a wealth of history on the area in self-published books. He also wrote editorial content about the subject for online media like Doni Glover's "The Glover Report" column at BmoreNews.com and Chicken Bones: A Journal (www.nathanielturner.com). His hope was that one day someone--elected officials, development corporations, anyone with the power to do so--would finally revitalize Pennsylvania Avenue. In the years since the decline of the Avenue in the 1970s there have been partial revitalization efforts, but the Avenue is far from what it could be.

Brunson's older sister Aletha "Brenda" Brunson, who lives in Richmond, Va., says her family is still mourning the loss of her brother. She says there were six siblings in the family that grew up on Dukeland Street in Baltimore. She says Alvin was very studious, and that his interest in the Pennsylvania Avenue may have been ignited by his love of jazz. When he was a student at Coppin State University earlier this decade, she says, he did a project on the Avenue. "He had a great interest in the contributions of blacks in Baltimore, especially those who had a significant influence and impact on Pennsylvania Avenue and Baltimore in general," she says. "He had me and everyone else in my family on the lookout for books, albums, magazines--anything anybody could find of historical significance."

Pryor-Trusty remembers getting a call from Brunson out of the blue in 1998. He said he was a fan of her Rambling Rose column and wanted to go with her to some of the music spots she focused on in her column. "He wanted to ramble with me," Pryor-Trusty laughs, "go place to place, club to club, hang out, meet people."

That night, they went to see Biddy Wood's band at the Short Stop Lounge in Southwest Baltimore. But for Brunson the "rambling" adventure had a purpose, because music was as much of a part of the culture he wanted to preserve as anything else. In 2005 he showed a reporter his extensive collection of recordings of African-American musicians from Baltimore. His CDs filled half of a room of bookshelves at the Center for Cultural Education, which was also his residence.

In the 10 years since she met Brunson, Pryor-Trusty says there wasn't a week that went by without him calling or e-mailing her to tell her about an event he was coordinating to draw people's attention back to the Avenue. This is the kind of work that led City Paper to name Brunson Best Community Historian in 2005. That same year, he spearheaded the effort to name the Pennsylvania Avenue post office after Thurgood Marshall.

Teresa Stephens, board chair of the Upton Planning Committee, says she remembers Brunson showing up in community meetings around six or seven years ago. He seemed pretty passionate back then, but she admits she didn't pay much attention to him at first.

"Many [who wanted to help the Avenue] came before and started out, but they didn't hold on as long and weren't as dedicated as Alvin," Stephens says. The community "supported him wholeheartedly."

Stephens says people living in Upton are concerned about the future of the Avenue now that Brunson is gone. She says there are others who can continue the work, including historian Louis C. Fields who runs the African-American Tourism Council of Maryland, but Brunson's voice will be greatly missed. "Having someone like Alvin who is a historian, who can talk about the importance of the Royal and the importance remembering the Royal, was invaluable to the neighborhood," says Stephens, who is also director of marketing for Live Baltimore. "And for Alvin, it wasn't just about the institutions. It was about the people who made the community historic. It was about being able to provide the youth, the kids, information--like greats like Thurgood Marshall, who became the highest judge in the country, came from their community. That was the tremendous worth of having an Alvin Brunson living and working around the corner in your neighborhood.

"He put actions behind his words," she says. "I'm hoping that someone will take the reins and come back to Upton and retain or promote its history."

Fields first met Brunson in 1999 and helped him put together his walking tours of Pennsylvania Avenue, and he says Brunson was a man of action even when he had doubts about his mission.

In addition to wondering whether the Avenue would finally be revitalized, Fields says, "Alvin wondered if people really appreciated what he was doing to bring the history and culture of Pennsylvania Avenue" to people. "We had long discussions about it, and he wondered whether or not patrons really appreciated this painstaking, self-sacrificing effort of one man's integrity to give back to the community he loved."

Aletha Brunson says her family hopes to further Alvin Brunson's work in Baltimore, but that it's hoping to get some help.

"We would like the Center for Cultural Education to continue, and for it to be housed in the 500 block of Wilson Street, on the site of the building Alvin was attempting to renovate for the purpose of making it a museum," she says. "We think it would be a wonderful gesture for the city to donate that site and/or facilitate the building of a structure to become that museum."

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