Black History Month & Baltimore's Black History
African Americans have been playing an important role in the history of our nation since colonial times. Baltimore has played a large part in that history, and this page is aimed at helping you learn about and visit some of the places in Baltimore where history has unfolded.
African American Festival
The African American Festival is an annual family celebration of the history, culture, education, heritage and arts that embraces and promotes the rich traditions and zestful spirit of the city of Baltimore. Participate in a diverse offering of arts and entertainment including national and local talent; educational and historical exhibits; interactive children's area; and crafts from more than 100 vendors, community organizations and merchants. Visit www.africanamericanfestival.net for more information.
Black History Month
What began as Negro History Week in 1926 and changed to Black History Week in 1972, became Black History Month in 1976. Dr. Carter G. Woodson, noted historian, author, world traveler and Harvard Ph.D., is known as the Father of Black History. It was his dream of seeing Black History recognized in mainstream America that led him to establish the second week of February as Negro History Week.
As an historian, Dr. Woodson saw February as a significant month in the history of Blacks. The second week of February was specifically chosen to include the birthdays of both President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, issued the Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery in 1863. Frederick Douglass, born into slavery, managed to escape from slavery and had the courage to speak out against racial injustices. He served as advisor to President Lincoln during the Civil War and published the North Star, although he is best known for his autobiography. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
While there are always events scheduled in Baltimore to celebrate Black History month, you can learn about Baltimore's history any time of the year, as well as the stories of the people who helped make Baltimore the place it is today.
Baltimore's Black History
Baltimore is a thriving city full of life, culture, entertainment, recreation and education, with a rich history as well. Whether you live in Maryland or just like to visit, you're likely familiar with such native attractions as the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Baltimore Ravens, Baltimore Orioles and the Inner Harbor. But if you look below the surface, you will find that there is a rich history to discover.
Baltimore's African American population has played an essential role in our rich past, present and future. So get your shovel, dig a little deeper and take a look at what Baltimore Baltimore's Black History is all about.
Since Baltimore's founding in the early 1700s, the large black population has been making contributions to its growth and development both physically and spiritually. While slavery was legal in Maryland, there were more free blacks in Baltimore than there were slaves. The free blacks established and organized both churches and organizations to aide in the fight against persecution, resulting in an abundant number of black churches still standing in the city today.
Black History in Baltimore: a timeline
In 1784, when Blacks withdrew from the Methodist Church because of racially segregated seating, Daniel Payne Coker organized the Bethel A.M.E. Church. In 1816 Coker became the first African American Methodist Episcopal bishop. The church is still active at 1300 Druid Hill Avenue in downtown Baltimore.
Established in 1787, the Sharp Street United Methodist Church is the home of Baltimore's first black congregation. It once served as a meeting place for the NAACP and is a National Historic Landmark that still stands at 1206 Etting Street.
Between 1789 and 1832, Joshua Johnson (also signed as Johnston) painted portraits of Baltimore residents. He is noted as the first prominent African American portrait artist. Some of his works depict a child holding a strawberry and, according to the 1814 Baltimore Directory, Johnson was noted as living on Strawberry Alley (although he is thought to have moved throughout Baltimore and Fells Point). The Baltimore Museum of Art and the Maryland Historical Society have some of his works on display.
The Peale Museum, located at 225 Holiday Street, is the oldest museum building in the Western Hemisphere. In a time when collections were displayed only for the elite, the Peale Museum was open to everyone. Built in 1814 by Rembrandt Peale, an artist best known for his portrait of George Washington which still hangs in the U.S. Capitol, it was the first free public school for black children.
In 1818, while the Centennial United Methodist Church was being built on Caroline Street, one of the most influential members in the battle against racial in justice was born into slavery on a farm outside of Easton, Maryland. Frederick Douglass later escaped the bonds of slavery and led one of the most incredible journeys recorded in black history. For more information on the life of this courageous Maryland native, read Sandra Thomas's A Biography of the Life of Frederick Douglass or his own autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
Frederick Douglass came to Baltimore's Fells Point at the age of eight. Memorials around the city in honor of Douglass include a marker in Fells Point Square and a statue in front of Holmes Hall at Morgan State University. During the summer months you can take the Frederick Douglass "Path to Freedom" Walking Tour (see our Annual Cultural Events and Festivals section).
When Frederick Douglass was in his 70's, he returned to Baltimore as a prosperous man and built five houses on Strawberry Alley that he named Douglass Place. Today it is known as Dallas Street, just north of Fleet Street.
In 1825, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born in Baltimore. Her parents died when she was only two, leaving her to live with her grandfather and attend the Baltimore Academy for Negro Youth School, at which her uncle taught. Influenced by their political activism and a strong education, she began writing poetry. Harper published a collection of poetry called Forrest Leaves in 1845, but is perhaps best known for her novel, Iola LeRoy, the story of a young woman who went South to offer help to the freed slaves following the Civil War.
In 1825, former slave Truman Pratt founded the Orchard Street Church, which is now home to the Greater Baltimore Urban League (founded in 1924). A passageway in the church leads to a sub-basement three floors below, which reveals an underground cistern and a portion of the underground tunnel, suggesting that the church was a stop along the underground railroad.
Since 1844, the Maryland Historical Society has been serving Maryland by preserving its heritage and is the state's oldest cultural institution. Located at 201 West Monument Street, it contains a number of artifacts relating to black history in Baltimore. Many are on exhibit in the museum or can be accessed through the Historical Society's library. The Historical Society also publishes several books annually and sponsors educational programs. Its mural replica exhibition featuring the Royal Theater and the former glory of Pennsylvania Avenue are both popular attractions.
In 1852, the Union Baptist Church was organized. Led by Reverend Harvey Johnson, the church became a center for the civil rights movement. The church remains active at 1219 Druid Hill Avenue.
From 1859 to 1861 the USS Constellation was flagship of the African Squadron stationed off the mouth of the Congo River. During her time there, her mission being to interdict slave trade ships, she captured and freed 705 men, women and children. The squadron itself captured a total of 14 ships and freed over 4,000 people. The USS Constellation is the last sail warship built by the US Navy and is the only Civil War era vessel still afloat. Tours of the ship are available.
Purchased in 1863 and dedicated in 1864, the historic St.Francis Xavier Catholic Church United States. Since slavery prohibited Blacks from receiving a formal education, many learned to read and write from the Catholic Church school that was started in the basement and taught by the Oblate Sisters (the first black Catholic religious order of nuns). In 1968 the church was moved to its present location on Caroline and Oliver Streets where it still holds services and houses a high school academy operated by the Oblate Sisters of Providence.
On February 12, 1865, Henry Highland Garnet was the first black person to speak to the U.S. House of Representatives. The Henry Highland Garnet Park was named after the famous Baltimore native Presbyterian preacher and lecturer.
Morgan State University is renowned for its contributions to Black History. Originally founded in 1867, it became a public institution in 1939. Of the 987 degrees awarded in the spring of 2004, 814 were earned by African American men and women (21 of which were doctorate degrees). Today, on the campus of Morgan State University, the James E. Lewis Museum of Art houses an impressive collection of African American artwork.
In 1883, James Hubert Blake was born the son of a former slave. Blake began organ lessons at the age of six and created a life surrounded by music. Better known as "Eubie" Blake, the famous pianist and composer met lyricist, Noble Sissle, and together they wrote their first Broadway show, Shuffle Along in 1921. When visiting Baltimore, don't forget to take time to see The Eubie Blake National Museum and Cultural Center. Eubie Blake is known to have attended the first free public school for black children at Peale Museum.
Established in 1888, Saint Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church stood as the first church in the world dedicated to Saint Peter Claver, the apostle for the slaves. The church still stands at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and North Freemont. The oldest private African American school still in existence is associated with this church.
In 1892, The Afro-American Newspaper was founded by a former slave, John H. Murphy, Sr. He purchased the printing equipment at a public auction for $200 and used it to begin publishing his own newspaper, focusing mainly on church events. In 1900 it merged with other church bulletins to form one periodical. By 1922 the newspaper had evolved from a church bulletin into the most widely circulated black newspaper along the eastern coast.
Murphy's five sons took over the business following their father's death and the paper continued to increase its circulation and influence in American culture. A sports writer hired in 1941 still writes a weekly column for the paper and with more than 120,000 regular readers it is the leading newspaper for the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. area as well as the longest running African American, family-owned newspaper in the United States. The newspapers headquarters are located on Charles Street.
Liberty Medical Center, currently found at 1600 Liberty Heights Avenue, was first named Provident Hospital and built in 1894 to provide both medical treatment and training for black nurses and doctors.
Founded at Douglass High School on Pennsylvania Street in 1900, Coppin State College, an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), was originally set up to offer one-year training courses for African American elementary school teachers. Within seven years it was governed by its own principal and had separated from the high school and by 1938 the curriculum was lengthened to four years and the college could grant a Bachelor's of Science degree.
The college had many name changes, but always honored Fanny Jackson Coppin, the black woman who, born a slave in Washington, D.C., gained her freedom and eventually became a pioneer in teacher education. Fanny Coppin, one of the first black women to earn a degree from a major U.S. college, earned her bachelor's degree in 1865 from Oberlin College in Ohio. Coppin State College is now located at 2500 West North Avenue.
Thurgood Marshall, born in Baltimore in 1908, was appointed as the first black Supreme Court Justice in 1967. Marshall played an integral role in the civil rights movement in the 20th century, representing Linda Brown in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. A statue at the U.S. Courthouse on Pratt Street in downtown Baltimore honors Baltimore's native son and great American lawyer, and a marker at 1632 Division Street marks the site of the house where he grew up.
In 1912, the first social club for African American's on the east coast was formed. The Arch Social Club lounge and restaurant still regularly features jazz music, and is Baltimore's oldest African American social club.
Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan in Baltimore in April of 1915. The well-known jazz singer's biography, Lady Sings the Blues, which chronicles her difficult childhood and her performance at Baltimore's famous Royal Theatre, was loosely translated into a popular movie starring Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams in 1972. You can see James Earl Reid's magnificent eight and a half foot bronze sculpture of Billie Holiday, complete with a Gardenia in her hair, on Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore, directly across from Providence Baptist Church. Every year, a Billie Holiday contest is held in Baltimore to find the best singer of Holiday's songs.
In 1922, the Douglas Theater opened as the finest black theater in America owned and controlled by African American people. The theater was eventually sold to whites and its name was changed to the Royal. Although the theater no longer stands, you can view a mural replica exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society on West Monument Street in Baltimore.
On July 11th, 1948, at Druid Hill Park 24 black tennis players left the courts in the Negro area of the park to play on the white only courts and were arrested. Today, right inside the park which also contains the Baltimore Zoo, you can view the famous Baltimore Tennis Marker listing the names of those 24 tennis players.
In 1953, nine aspiring Black actors and actresses formed Arena Playhouse, Inc., the oldest continuously operating African American owned Community Theater in the country. The Arena Playhouse, located at 801 McCulloh Street in West Baltimore, seats 300 and the Arena Players have included some famous Baltimoreans such as Howard Rollins and Charles Dutton.
In 1972, an off-campus branch of Antioch University called Homestead Montebello Center Antioch University and changed its name to Sojourner-Douglass College. At 500 North Caroline Street in Baltimore, as well as four off campus sites, the college operates only on nights and weekends, giving working adults the opportunity to attend classes. Dr. Charles Simmons is still the President of the college.
On May 30, 1972, the Negro Heroes of the U.S. Monument was dedicated by artist James Lewis to commemorate the African American servicemen from all American wars. Located in Battle Monument Plaza at Calvert and Lexington Streets, the nine foot bronze statue is an impressive memorial tribute.
In 1976, WJZ-TV on 3725 Malden Avenue in Baltimore made national history when Oprah Winfrey became the first African American woman co-anchor and reporter in the country.
And in 1978, the Black Classic Press was founded to print "obscure and significant works by and about people of African descent." Located at 4701 Mount Hope Drive, they have published many authors including John G. Jackson, John Henrik Clarke, Yosefben-Jochannan, Dorothy Porter and Charles L. Blockson.
The National Aquarium in Baltimore, a favored attraction since its opening in 1981, actually received a rare fish collection from Henry Hall before it was even built. Henry Hall, sometimes referred to as the Father of Baltimore's Black Engineers, also made the tanks that housed his donation. The Aquarium, the most visited on the East Coast, developed the Henry Hall foundation in honor of his generous gift.
In 1983, Dr. Elmer and Joanne Martin founded the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in downtown Baltimore with 21 wax figures and the help of good friends. When they purchased four wax figures with money they had saved to make a down payment on a house, they began by traveling with the figures and setting up exhibits in schools, shopping malls, and churches. In 1988, they opened a 10,000 square foot facility on North Avenue, making their mark in Black History with over 100 life-sized and life-like wax figures and scenes, including Malcolm X, Sojourner Truth, Langston Hughes and a full scale model of a slave ship.
In 1986, the NAACP, founded in 1909 and the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization,moved its national headquarters to Baltimore. The headquarters, located at 4805 Mount Hope Drive, includes a Dorothy Parker Memorial Garden, named for the poet and short story writer. Ms. Parker, best known for her witty satire, left her entire estate to the NAACP after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Since 1968, the NAACP has been receiving royalties from Parker's publications and productions.
On April 6th, 1992, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, located at 333 West Camden Street in downtown Baltimore, became the official home of the Baltimore Orioles. Camden Station, now part of the Oriole Park, was a part of Harriett Tubman's Underground Railroad. The Eutaw Street entrance to Oriole Park was renamed Leon Day Way after Leon Day, the 12th Negro League player to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
In May of 2005, the Sports Legends at Camden Yards opened its doors to Baltimore. Baltimore had two Negro League teams, the Baltimore Elite Giants and the Baltimore Black Sox. With the artifacts now being displayed from the Negro Baseball League, the museum hopes that it will draw more attention and find other treasures to display, residents and visitors. With exhibits and other sports memorabilia moved from the Babe Ruth Birth place and Museum, it offers an extensive collection including a few souvenirs of the Negro Baseball League.
On June 25, 2005, the grand opening of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture was held at 830 East Pratt Street in downtown Baltimore. With permanent exhibitions and special visiting exhibits and collections, the museum hopes to inspire all visitors with resources and information on black Marylanders. It is the East Coast's largest African American Museum and the second largest museum of its kind in the world.
June 2006 marked the completion of The Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, located on the waterfront in historic Fells Point, the primary area where Southern blacks sought jobs and housing upon coming to Baltimore. Founded by the Living Classrooms Foundation, the $12 million project honors Frederick Douglass, Isaac Myers and highlights the founding of the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company, as well as the establishment of an African American community in Baltimore in the 1800s.
With an almost endless number of museums, churches, monuments, statues, tours, and more, Baltimore hopes to continue its homage to black history and the people and events that made an impact on the city and nation.
To learn more about Baltimore and the history of the African American community, you might find the works of Agnes Kane Callum and Louis Diggs helpful. Both were born in Baltimore and are experts in genealogy and research and have been exploring Baltimore's rich history for years.
A study of Black History would not be complete without a visit to Baltimore. The African American Heritage & Attractions Guide is a publication of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.
Plan your trip!
- Fresh Thoughts - Fleet Street Kitchen May 21, 2013 - May 22, 2013 | 6:30pm - 9:00pm
- BMI Farmers' Market May 18, 2013 - October 26, 2013 | 9:00am - 1:00pm
- The Original Fell’s Point GhostWalk March 1, 2013 - November 30, 2013 | 7:00pm - 10:00pm
- New Eyes on America: The Genius of Richard Caton Woodville March 10, 2013 - June 2, 2013 | 10:00am - 5:00pm
- New Eyes on America: The Genius of Richard Caton Woodville March 10, 2013 - June 2, 2013 | 10:00am - 5:00pm