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Charmed Life

Postcards from the Edge

Michelle Gienow

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 10/25/2000

Touch Monroe Frederick's business card, and you touch the man's soul. On one side, there's the usual contact information, a slogan ("Some History--Plus a Postcard, too"), and a one-line bio ("25 Years NY Area Photographer Jet Magazine"). The business is called Heritage Postcards/Tours of Maryland. Frederick is named as chief executive officer and president.

But the flip side of the card, a sample of Frederick's photography, speaks volumes. In the background stands the Washington Monument; in the foreground, three arabbers pose with their jaunty cart and pony. It's a clash of icons--official Baltimore vs. "the other Baltimore"--with the arabber cart heading irreverently west on Centre Street, away from the monument. The image is charmingly subversive, amiably in-your-face.

A hefty gray-haired man of 65, Frederick is a native Baltimorean who left the city at 17 to seek his fortune. After military service, he used his GI Bill grant to study photography while attending the New York School of Traffic and Transportation. From then on he pursued dual careers: full-time with the U.S. Postal Service, where he supervised transportation in New York, and part-time as a freelance photographer for Jet and Ebony magazines. The latter line of work brought him in contact with politicos and performers, some of whom became his friends. He lists Lena Horne, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson among those he got close to. Characteristically, Frederick heaps scorn on the well-dressed politicians who've crossed his lens, while proudly showing off pictures from the "Jackie Robinson Sunday Afternoon of Jazz" concert series on the ballplayer's lawn in New York, which he not only photographed but promoted for 20 years.

After three decades in the Big Apple, Frederick returned to Druid Hill Avenue to live in the house his parents owned. His mission: to rediscover black Baltimore's legacy and publish it on postcards. "Originally," he says, "I was just going to do six cards, but after discovering all the history, I wound up with 22." The handsome cards, designed by Frederick and produced in Missouri, honor the famous (Benjamin Banneker, Eubie Blake) and the obscure (slave quarters at the Hampton Plantation), and celebrate local folkways and institutions. Their text purveys not only facts but also the author's opinions and exhortations: "Remember, Baltimore City is more than Crabs and Crabcakes," "Support the righteous!" "Join the Great Blacks in Wax Museum as a member; they need your help . . ." Nearly all the cards bear the motto, "Baltimore, The City of Great African-American History."

In the 1940s, when Frederick was growing up, African-American history was not widely celebrated or even discussed. When, as an adult, he began to delve into black Baltimore's legacy, he says, "I was surprised and I was disappointed. . . . I felt cheated because my teachers in the city neglected to tell me all these things." He is still outraged by the fact that, "other than Martin Luther King [Boulevard], there are no streets named after black people in Baltimore."

His research has largely been carried out in the African American Collection of the central Enoch Pratt Library, whose director, Eva Slezak, he calls "my savior." Along the way, he has come to a few opinions that run counter to the conventional wisdom of local history. For example, he debunks in strong terms the fame accorded to Isaac Myers, who is credited with starting the first black-owned shipyard in Baltimore. Myers, he insists, was basically a frontperson for a large cadre of black investors, and not the singular hero he's made out to be. He also says that when Fred Bailey (later called Frederick Douglass) fled Baltimore disguised as a sailor, he wore a uniform borrowed from George Alexander Hackett, a leading black businessperson and former sailor whose path intersected with Douglass' several times. Among his current projects, Monroe Frederick is collaborating on a book about Douglass and his first wife, Anna Murray, who, Frederick believes, has been grossly neglected by biographers. The text will be written by Douglass' descendant Frederick Douglass IV.

Gradually, Baltimore is awakening to its underreported history, thanks in part to people such as Frederick who have made "heritage tourism" their business. But the slow progress causes Frederick--and others in the field--immense frustration. In Baltimore, he says, his cards are on sale only at the central library's Pratt Place gift shop and the Eubie Blake Center; hotel shops have snubbed him. "They told me," he says, still incredulous, "that black-history cards don't have a place in their gift shops at this time." The local tourism establishment, he complains, has been "no help" in promoting African-American heritage.

He keeps plugging and pushing. "I know that I'm going to succeed in time. . . . It's just like a woodpecker. He can peck at tree for a year, but he's going to get it to fall."

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