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Street of Dreams

Pennsylvania Avenue Was Once the Center of Black Life and Culture in Baltimore—Can It Be Again? The First of a Two-Part Series

Courtesy Maryland Historical Society
SHOWTIME: The Royal Theater, as it looked in 1949
Photos by Ken Royster
OUT OF THE PAST: 90-year-old Clarence "Shad" Brown remembers Pennsylvania Avenue as the center of African-American life and culture in Baltimore.
GLOVE LOVE: Historian Philip J. Merrill has amassed a collection of artifacts of life on the avenue, including an assortment of saxophonist Bubby Johnson's business cards.
LIVING HISTORY: The Center for Cultural Education's Alvin K. Brunson passes on Pennsylvania Avenue's history to new generations from the center's headquarters right on the avenue itself.
THE BAD OLD DAYS: Journalist James "Biddy" Wood remembers when some Pennsylvania Avenue businesses not only refused to hire blacks, they refused to serve them, too.
SINGIN' THE BLUES: "Tiny Tim" Harris doesn't miss segregation, but says that it was not without its benefits for the black community.

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 2/2/2005

It’s been 34 years since the demolition of the Royal Theater , signaling the end of the entertainment district along Pennsylvania Avenue, but 90-year-old Northwest Baltimore resident Clarence “Shad” Brown still takes an occasional trip down memory lane to remember the Avenue during its heyday. Health reasons prevent him from actually making the drive a few miles south to the street itself on a cold winter day, but sitting at his dining room table, dressed comfortably in a striped T-shirt and gray sweatpants, he’s only too happy to take a mental trip back to the days when he might find himself standing on the Avenue on a warm sunny day wearing a stylish three-piece suit. In fact, he says, you wouldn’t be caught dead there wearing anything but your finest and sharpest.

“Yeah, the Avenue was the spot,” Brown beams with pride. “I can name every store, club, and every bar all the way up [the street].” Brown describes Pennsylvania Avenue from what was called “the bottom,” near where he lived on Hoffman Street, up to North Avenue, stopping at places like the Club Casino, Ike Dixon’s Comedy Club, Gamby’s, and the Sphinx Club. Brown recalls he mingled with a stream of ordinary people—from laborers to doctors and teachers—all dressed to the nines in hats, dresses, gloves, furs, suits, and zoot suits. Like Brown, they were often heading to the Royal or Regent theaters, or one of the innumerable bars and nightclubs lining Penn Ave. And at the Royal Theater, for example, patrons could pay 50 to 75 cents ($1 for the midnight show) to see the likes of Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington at the nearly 1,400-seat luxury theater, and then catch a glimpse of the same stars later at famed hot spots like the Avenue Bar or the Alhambra Grill.

“I knew everybody, you name them—Redd Foxx and Slappy White, Pearl Bailey,” Brown says. “Dinah Washington used to stay at my house when she was in town.”

Like many African-Americans who lived in Baltimore during the mid-20th century, Brown likes to remember Pennsylvania Avenue as a mecca of black entertainment. But there are other, more painful memories that come out more hesitantly.

Dinah Washington stayed with him, Brown says, because she “couldn’t just go downtown and get one of those hotels down there. No, if you were black you had to stay at someone’s house on the Avenue if the hotels that served Negroes”—the Penn or the York—“were booked.”

The excitement on Brown’s face wanes. “It was the only place the Negro could go,” he says.

Brown was born in 1915 and lived no more than four blocks from Pennsylvania Avenue until the late 1960s. And for most of that time, he says, the Avenue itself, the YMCA on Druid Hill Avenue, and a few segregated areas of Druid Hill Park were the only places where blacks could go in Old West Baltimore, the neighborhood now known as Upton.

Brown’s change in mood bears witness to the mixed opinions and feelings that many African-Americans in Baltimore still have about Pennsylvania Avenue. While the Avenue may have been the place to be back in the day, it prospered because it existed amid the segregation of Jim Crow-era America. Blacks couldn’t go to the Hippodrome or to Baltimore Street for entertainment, and the theaters blacks could and did attend, such as the Royal, were often owned by whites. Yet, within this harsh, segregated world, Pennsylvania Avenue also served as a bittersweet point of pride—the only place in town one might see Hollywood-worthy black names on a marquee.

Today, Pennsylvania Avenue bears few obvious signs of ever having seen good times. Many of the historic buildings have been torn down; the Shake ‘N’ Bake Recreation Center now stands where the Regent used to be. While the Avenue Market is still open and the 1600 block boasts a big retail store in Foot Locker, the shopping options are limited. The people strolling Pennsylvania Avenue these days may be dressed in their best clothes, but it’s hard to see much excitement in their demeanors.

In 2000, Mayor Martin O’Malley established the Pennsylvanian Avenue Redevelopment Collaborative (PARC) as part of his newly instituted Main Streets program. Since that time, $720,000 of city money has been budgeted for the program, and $400,000 has already been spent, PARC executive director George Gilliam says. A monument to the Royal has been built where the theater once stood, a Billie Holiday statue has been erected, among other street-beautification projects, and some new housing is going up in the neighborhood.

There is even more development expected for Pennsylvania Avenue as part of city’s master plan to revive the Upton neighborhood. Most observers and residents welcome revitalization, but the efforts are also stirring up conflicting memories and thoughts, and even some doubts.

While for many the image of long-ago Pennsylvania Avenue is one of black entertainers and their patrons living the high life along its storied blocks, the history of the Avenue is more complicated and contradictory than that. As Baltimoreans ponder the task and consequences of revitalizing the Avenue in a 21st century that is racially, economically, and socially so different from its heyday, the history of Pennsylvania Avenue offers as many questions about its future as answers.

 

Even during the days of slavery, Maryland boasted an unusually high number of free blacks, most especially in Baltimore. According to Barbara Mills’ 2002 book Got My Mind Set on Freedom: Maryland’s Story on Black and White Activism, 1663-2000, there were 323 free blacks in Baltimore in 1790 and 1,255 slaves; in 1860 there were 25,680 free blacks and 2,218 slaves. Nonetheless, there was no single predominantly African-American residential area in the city before the late 19th century; as noted in The Baltimore Book (1991): “In 1880, blacks were widely distributed throughout Baltimore City. Although African-Americans constituted 10 percent or more of the total population in three-fourths of the city’s 20 wards, no single ward was more than one-third black.”

Baltimore’s African-Americans began moving west of the fledgling downtown around 1885 to get away from overcrowding, poor sanitation, and polluted wells. By the end of the 19th century, the black population boomed due to migration from the South and rural areas of Maryland and other surrounding states. (U.S. Census data reveals that in 1910 84,749 blacks were living in Baltimore, making up more than 15 percent of the city’s population.)

This is when a segregated African-American community called Old West Baltimore emerged in an area bounded by North Avenue to the north, Franklin Street to the south, and Madison and Fulton streets to the east and west, respectively, with Pennsylvania running through its heart away from the center city to the northwest. By 1904, about half of the city’s African-American population lived in Old West Baltimore—a neighborhood that encompassed what The Baltimore Book describes as the “most prominent of Baltimore’s black citizens, a substantial group of modest renters, and the poorest of the city’s working class.”

But African-Americans weren’t the first residents of Pennsylvania Avenue. “Other ethnic groups populated the avenue before blacks did,” says Alvin K. Brunson, director of exhibits and programs for the Center for Cultural Education, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educational and cultural enrichment located at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Wilson Street. He says that before African-Americans moved in Pennsylvania Avenue was populated by Jews, Italians, Germans, and other European immigrants, both as residents and business owners.

“It was definitely a retail district before African-Americans moved in,” Brunson says. The neighborhood was largely Jewish and Pennsylvania Avenue was lined with businesses where “goods and services could be bought and sold,” he adds. “And the Lafayette Market opened in 1871 and was driving much of this retail business.”

Of course, the history of the Avenue—and its black population—goes back further than that.

“Pennsylvania Avenue officially appears on Baltimore maps back in 1818,” Brunson says, first called the Wagon Road in the 18th century, then Hookstown Road, then Pennsylvania Road, as merchants and others traveled and traded up and down the thoroughfare between Baltimore and Southern Pennsylvania throughout the 1700s and 1800s. (The street, officially named Pennsylvania Avenue in 1818, still leads to its namesake state, via Reisterstown Road.) Some remnants of these early European residents remain there today: Brunson references the Etting Cemetary, at Pennsylvania and North avenues. It’s the oldest Jewish cemetery in Baltimore and dates from 1799, with the last burial taking place in 1881.

Meanwhile, Brunson says, 1799 also marked the arrival of the first group of black slaves from Haiti, who settled near the first block of Pennsylvania Avenue at Franklin Street, Brunson believes, to help build the St. Mary’s Seminary as slave labor. (St. Mary’s Seminary was located at 600 N. Paca St. before moving to Roland Avenue, where it resides today.) Soon after the Civil War ended in 1865, many ex-slaves and blacks who gained their freedom before the Civil War moved to Baltimore. As the black population of the Pennsylvania Avenue area increased, so did the number of churches (such as Union Baptist, Bethel A.M.E., and Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist), schools, hotels, and other businesses catering to blacks, which in turn also drew more residents and visitors. There were also a number of theaters, most owned by whites. “Theater owners saw the influx of blacks into this area as a means by which to make money,” Brunson says.

In fact, while African-Americans increasingly dominated almost all aspects of everyday life on Pennsylvania Avenue as the 20th century dawned, they did not dominate its commerce. Although there were always what Brunson categorizes as “a handful” of black-owned businesses on the Avenue—including the Smith Punch Base Coffee and Tea Co., which moved into the 1400 block in 1908, and the Cortez Peters Business School, which opened in the 1200 block in 1935—“from the 1920s to the 1950s, the businesses were predominantly owned by Jews,” he says. More black-owned businesses sprouted on the Avenue in the ’60s, Brunson says, but adds that “sometimes people paint a picture of Pennsylvania Avenue as a haven for black businesses, and that’s not true.”

 

“I get tired of people talking about the Harlem Renaissance, because Baltimore had had a renaissance, too,” says Philip J. Merrill. “And so did other cities with large black communities—Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, all of these communities had a renaissance.”

Merrill should know. A collector, historian, author, and appraiser for PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, the 42-year-old Baltimorean specializes in African-American history, specifically the physical relics of black culture. Through his firm, Nanny Jack and Co., Merrill consults on exhibits, tours, and seminars, brokers black memorabilia, rents artifacts to film companies, and provides stock photography rentals and research. And, though his work encompasses African-American history as a whole, he has a special interest in his hometown.

“You had writers, artists, and politicians, you had a whole movement that emerged from people living in this area during this time,” Merrill says. “People don’t understand that Pennsylvania Avenue was more than a mecca for entertainment, it was a mecca for black people.”

Merrill has brought some artifacts to a Catonsville church to make his case for a reporter; what ensues is a dizzying history lesson. Wearing white plastic gloves to handle delicate materials, he carefully points to the pieces of history he has found everywhere from eBay to people’s discarded trash: pictures and literature that offer proof of thriving black businesses, social clubs, and artists working along Pennsylvania Avenue.

Merrill pulls out a series of early 20th-century photographs taken by Arthur L. Macbeth, including a sepia-tone portrait of a well-dressed black mother in her prime and her equally well-appointed child, both gazing into the lens with evident pride. In a photograph of Macbeth himself, included in an advertisement, he is very fair skinned and bears an uncanny resemblance to Theodore Roosevelt. Merrill notes the photographer’s slogan with a chuckle: “If you have beauty, we take it. If you have none, we make it.” From 1910 until the late ’30s, Macbeth’s studio was located on Pennsylvania Avenue.

“We had our own James VanDerZee in town who was barely recognized” Merrill says, referencing the famous Harlem Renaissance photographer. “Why do we have to go to Harlem to see images of refined blacks when we’ve got them right here?”

There were so many African-American Baltimoreans thriving on and around Pennsylvania Avenue during the early and mid-20th century that all you had to do for a list was, well, pick up a directory. That’s exactly what Merrill does, pulling out The First Colored Professional, Clerical and Business Directory of Baltimore City, a small, weathered blue booklet printed with block letters, first published in 1913 by an African-American man named Robert Coleman. Coleman continued to publish directories annually until his death in 1946. Although the directories were published years before Merrill was born, they are clearly his babies; he allows a reporter to leaf through a laminated ninth edition, published in 1921 and featuring a portrait of Coleman inside, but the 1913 first edition is off limits. “It’s too fragile,” he says.

It is easy to understand why Merrill is so zealous about these modest booklets. They provide a front-row seat to the lives that ordinary residents of the Pennsylvania Avenue area lived back then. About 60 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the 1921-’22 edition of Coleman’s directory lists 21 black dentists, nine of whose practices were on Pennsylvania. The name of African-American attorney George W.F. McMechen leaps from one page; as the former Morgan College’s first graduate in 1895, McMechen now has a building at Morgan State University named in his honor. The directory also includes listings for two mine operators, 12 notaries public, seven nurses, 44 physicians, and 28 organizations, including the Arch Social Club (then located at 1106 McCulloh St.), the Colored High School Alumni Association, the Du Bois Circle (named for W.E.B. Du Bois), the Inter-Racial Conference, the Maryland Association for the Colored Blind, the Maryland Colored Public Health Association, the NAACP, and the Marcus Garvey-led black nationalist group the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which once had an office at 1917 Pennsylvania Ave.

“Marcus Garvey came to Baltimore on many occasions,” Merrill says excitedly. “He even got married to his second wife here. But you never even hear that Baltimore had a [UNIA] chapter, much less that it met on Pennsylvania Avenue.

“It’s great when people talk about the Avenue as it relates to the Royal Theater,” he sums up. “But the avenue was so much more than the Royal. Pennsylvania Avenue could not have survived without the stability of the other surrounding streets—your homeowners, renters, other successful people living in these other blocks.”

Still, most people remember the Avenue fondly for entertainment venues like the Royal. “Tiny” Tim Harris counts the Royal among his fondest memories.

Harris says he has been singing since 1945, four years after he was born in North Carolina, and started making records while still in high school in Baltimore. Sitting down for an afternoon chat inside the upper story of the red-lit confines of Maceo’s Bar on Monroe Street, where he sings each Wednesday night, Harris’ slight stature obviously inspired his nickname; in fact, he bears an uncanny resemblance to fellow songster Sammy Davis Jr.

Harris remembers patronizing the Avenue as early as age 11, going to dances at the New Albert hall. Recalling his growth from boy to man, from young patron to veteran performer, he echoes common sentiments about Pennsylvania Avenue being a bastion of excitement. “It felt just like it did when I visited 125th Street,” he says, referring to Harlem’s famous main drag, home of the Apollo Theatre, the pinnacle stop on the so-called “chitlin circuit” of black clubs and theaters that included the Royal and other Pennsylvania Avenue venues. “Every major city had a black mecca,” Harris says, and the Royal was Baltimore’s.

Harris spent a good part of the ’60s and ’70s singing on the Avenue—at the Club Casino (1513-19 Pennsylvania Ave.), the Bamboo Lounge (1426 Pennsylvania Ave.), and the Millionaire Club (1029 Pennsylvania Ave.), among other clubs.

“If you were a star on the chitlin’ circuit, you were a star, period,” he says. “It didn’t make any difference if you weren’t recognized by whites or anyone else. As long as you could be recognized by your own people, that’s all you needed.”

But by the early ’70s, singers such as Harris could perform all over town, though many of bars and nightclubs that once hosted live music had replaced bands and singers with jukeboxes. The mighty Royal stopped hosting live music in 1965 and tried a second life as a movie theater before being torn down in 1971. “The entertainment piece was a big piece,” the Center for Cultural Education’s Alvin Brunson says. “I’m sure that was a factor in the Avenue’s decline.”

That decline was already in full swing by the time the Royal shut its doors for good. Vice had always been a part of life on Pennsylvania Avenue: One of Philip Merrill’s prize pieces is the diary of a woman who frequented the Avenue between 1925 and 1950 and left behind an account peppered with mentions of illicit “juice joints,” numbers running, and back-alley abortions. By 1967, when an Evening Sun article weighed in on the Avenue’s woes, many of the stores and homes in the area were vacant or in disrepair, there was mounting evidence of narcotics traffic, and “undercover agents were working around the clock” in the neighborhood.

One of the ironies of the Pennsylvania Avenue saga is that, in providing the kind of community base that fueled and supported the local civil-rights movement, the end of official segregation ended the Avenue’s monopoly on entertainment, housing, and shopping for African-Americans. Harris says he was never a fan of segregation and acknowledges that desegregation brought with it improved educational opportunities, but he notes that segregation was not without its benefits for the city’s insular black community.

“It was a separate world,” he says of segregated Pennsylvania Avenue. “We had ours and they had theirs, and it was better that way.” He gets so riled up by this thought that he starts to pace. “We had more money in our neighborhoods,” he says. Aiming a gesture of exasperation toward a window a few feet away—and the streets outside—he adds, “And our neighborhoods weren’t run-down like this, either.”

 

Eighty-year-old West Baltimore resident James “Biddy” Wood was a journalist for the Afro-American newspaper in 1949, and his beat was Pennsylvania Avenue. Biddy last wrote about the Avenue in a 1992 article for a program for Associated Black Charities, wherein he referred to life on the Avenue during the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s as “good years,” illuminated by lights that “shone like ‘Jewels in the Inner City.’” In the same story, Wood called the Royal Theater “a citadel for the finest Black entertainer, who could not showcase their exceptional talents elsewhere in Jim Crow America.” But now, a few years later and a few years older, Wood uses different words.

“Heyday for whom?” he asks.

“Look up the world ‘heyday,’” he demands. A quick click on Dictionary.com brings up the following definition: “The period of greatest popularity, success, or power; prime.”

“That definition would imply that the Avenue was cause for celebration,” Wood says. “The majority of businesses on Pennsylvania Avenue were owned by whites.”

There is no better example of the ironies of white ownership on Pennsylvania Avenue than the Royal Theater itself. As the Center for Cultural Education’s Brunson relates, it was originally black-owned and -operated, opened by a group of local black businessmen in 1921 as the Douglass Theater. The original owners did what they could to make a go of it, even offering shares of stock to community members for $5 a share, but the business failed. In 1926, it was bought by a Jewish-German family, the Bennethums, who refurbished it, renamed it the Royal, and reopened. It was soon the toast of the Avenue. (A.L. Lichtman bought the theater in 1927.)

“The Douglass Theatre did not get the support that it needed to stay in business,” Brunson says. “The white owners of the Royal had a larger resource pool to attract more quality entertainment.”

“The only two black-owned theaters [in Baltimore] that I knew of were the Dunbar, owned by the Carr family, and the Biddle, owned by the Lee family, which were in East Baltimore,” Wood adds. “Not on Pennsylvania Avenue.”

And while the Royal employed blacks, other Avenue businesses that profited primarily from the dollars of African-Americans refused to hire black employees.

Wood mentions “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work,” a 1933 campaign organized by a black youth group called the City-Wide Young People’s Forum, for which African-Americans were asked to boycott white-owned stores on the Avenue until those businesses hired more African-Americans. Protesters and store owners traded legal salvos in local courts, but many Avenue businessmen eventually acquiesced to the group’s demands because they were losing too much money.

Still, other establishments on Pennsylvania Avenue practiced further segregation, not only refusing to employ blacks but refusing to serve them as well.

Herman Katkow, 86, who bought the Beverly Shop women’s clothing store on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1952, says he served black customers and employed black clerks. But he says one of his white peers, Joe Eisenberg, the owner of Eisenberg’s Delicatessen in the 1800 block of Pennsylvania, would not. “In his narrow thinking,” Katkow says, “he thought that if he started serving blacks the whites wouldn’t come”—particularly the white employees of nearby Maryland National Bank, who often stopped by the deli for lunch.

But Katkow had heard that the black community was going to picket Eisenberg’s. “I told Joe that he had to start serving everybody,” he says. “And if you don’t open up your restaurant, I’m going to be in the picket line.” Eisenberg eventually started to serve to blacks; Katkow went on to work with organizations like Black/Jewish Forum of Baltimore.

Such stories make it tough for Biddy Wood to look back fondly on Pennsylvania Avenue’s ostensible Golden Age: “I’m not so sure it’s an occasion to celebrate back when Jim Crow was bossing folks all over America, insisting they would remain second-class citizens and building these types of [segregated] institutions to make sure they didn’t go elsewhere.” In fact, Wood contends, the segregation-defined, largely white-owned Avenue could be seen as another form of control—in creating it, he theorizes, the powers-that-be “were trying to kill the desire to visit habitats of choice.”

Regardless of his feelings about the challenges of life for blacks on the Avenue back then, Wood notes that the struggle for equality historically has not, and cannot, go forward including only one ethnic group. “Nothing is accomplished without support,” he says, citing nonblack pioneers in the struggle for civil rights such as Arthur Spingarn, who was instrumental in founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “The progress we have made did not come through us alone.”

Likewise, Wood says he has no interest in re-creating the old Pennsylvania Avenue, even on 21st-century terms. “I don’t want anything to be all-black, because America is not all-black,” he says. “We’ve got to find a way to live together if we can in this multiracial society.”

When told of Biddy Wood’s low opinion of Pennsylvania Avenue’s ostensible glory days, “Tiny” Tim Harris quickly quips, “That’s because Biddy Wood lived a privileged life. He was a journalist and an entertainment manger, and his father was the superintendent of schools. Pennsylvania Avenue meant something entirely different to the common man.”

Yet Harris agrees with his old friend Wood about the notion of reviving the Pennsylvania Avenue of old. “I wouldn’t want to bring it back,” he says. “I’m a realist. And you can’t go backwards. What we have to do is find a way to go forward.”

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