Ultimate Guide

African American Heritage in Baltimore

In Baltimore, the story of the African-American experience comes alive. From music and the arts to politics and education, African-Americans have had an impact on American life. Take a walk through history, from the earliest days of American independence to the present. Baltimore boasts a wealth of cultural attractions including museums, monuments and historic sites. Read on for a sampling of what to see, do and explore.

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Daniel Coker & the Sharp Street United Methodist Church

Established in 1787, the Sharp Street United Methodist Church is the home of Baltimore’s first African-American congregation. It once served as a meeting place for the NAACP and is a National Historic Landmark at 1206 Etting Street.

In 1816, a group of prominent African-American clergy opposing racial segregation in the Methodist Church founded the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church. Among the founders was Reverend Daniel Coker, a Baltimore-born missionary and abolitionist. Coker organized the Bethel A.M.E. Church in Baltimore, a church that is still thriving at 1300 Druid Hill Avenue in downtown Baltimore.

Joshua Johnson & the Peale Museum

Recognized as the first prominent African-American portrait artist, Joshua Johnson painted portraits of noteworthy Baltimore residents in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Baltimore Museum of Art and the Maryland Historical Society have some of Johnson’s works on display.

At a time when collections were displayed only for the elite, The Peale Museum was open to everyone. Built in 1814, the building was also the site of the first free public school for African-American children. While the Peale Museum is now closed, the collection is preserved at the Maryland Historical Society and the building at 225 Holliday Street remains a National Historic Landmark. It is the oldest museum building in the Western Hemisphere.

Frederick Douglass

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass arrived in the Baltimore neighborhood of Fell’s Point as an eight-year-old boy. His amazing life is celebrated in museums and memorials around the city. Visit the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, to learn about Douglass’s life as a child. During the summer months, take the Frederick Douglass “Path to Freedom” Walking Tour. A marker in Fell’s Point Square and a statue in front of Holmes Hall at Morgan State University honor Douglass’s life and achievements.

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.

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.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper & Orchard Street Church

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, where her uncle was a teacher. Influenced by their political activism and a strong education, she began writing poetry. Harper published a collection of poetry called Forest 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 1839, Trueman Pratt, Cyrus Moore and Basil Hall, three free Black men, founded the Orchard Street Church. The church was a central part of a thriving community for free African-Americans after the Civil War. After Pratt’s death 1877, the congregation outgrew their church, and a new church was built in the same location in 1882. Now home to the Baltimore Urban League, Orchard Street Church remains the oldest standing structure built by African-Americans in Baltimore.

The Maryland Historical Society & The Union Baptist Church

Founded in 1844, and the oldest continuously operating cultural institution in the state of Maryland, the Maryland Historical Society contains more than 350,000 objects and 7 million books and documents, including exhibits telling the story of African-American life in Baltimore. MdHS has more than 7,000 photographs taken by Paul Henderson, a photojournalist who worked for The Afro-American newspaper photographing African-Americans in everyday life from 1929 to 1965.

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.

The USS Constellation & the Freeing of Slaves

From 1859 to 1861 the USS Constellation was the flagship of the United States Navy’s African Squadron stationed off the mouth of the Congo River. The ship, deployed to interrupt the African slave trade, captured a slave ship holding 705 African men, women and children. The squadron itself captured a total of 14 ships and freed more than 4,000 people. The Constellation is the last sail warship built by the US Navy and is the only Civil War era vessel still afloat. The ship is open to the public.

St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church

Purchased in 1863 and dedicated in 1864, the historic St. Francis Xavier Church was the first Catholic Church in the United States established for African-Americans. Since slavery prohibited African-Americans from receiving a formal education, many learned to read and write from the Catholic Church school that was started in the basement of the church, 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.

Henry Highland Garnet

On February 12, 1865, Henry Highland Garnet was the first African-American 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

Morgan State University is renowned for its contributions to African-American history. Founded in 1867 as the Centenary Biblical Institute by the Baltimore Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the institution's original mission was to train young men in ministry. It subsequently broadened its mission to educate both men and women as teachers. In 1939, Morgan State became a public institution. Today, the school educates students from around the world, and houses an impressive collection of African-American works at the James E. Lewis Museum of Art.

Eubie Blake

In 1883, James Hubert Blake was born the son of a former slave. Blake began organ lessons at the age of six. 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 African-American children at Peale Museum.

Saint Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church

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.

John H. Murphy & the Founding of The Afro

In 1892, The Baltimore 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. By 1922 the newspaper had evolved from a church bulletin into the most widely circulated African-American newspaper along the East Coast. Today, The Afro is the longest-running, family-owned, African-American newspaper in the nation.

Coppin State College

Founded at Douglass High School on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1900, Coppin State College was originally established 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 institution had become an undergraduate college.

The college is named for Fanny Jackson Coppin, the African-American woman who, born a slave in Washington, D.C., gained her freedom and eventually became a pioneer in teacher education. Coppin State is now located at 2500 West North Avenue.

Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall, born in Baltimore in 1908, was appointed as the first African-American 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.

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan in Baltimore in 1915. A magnificent bronze sculpture of Holiday, complete with her signature gardenia, stands more than eight feet tall on Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore. (The sculpture is located directly across from Providence Baptist Church at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Lafayette Street.) For many years, Baltimore’s annual Artscape festival has featured a Billie Holiday Vocal Competition showcasing the city’s emerging artists.

Douglas Theater

In 1922, the Douglas Theater opened as the finest Black theater in America owned and controlled by African-Americans. The theater was eventually sold 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.

Druid Hill Park

On July 11th, 1948 at Druid Hill Park, 24 African-American tennis players left the courts in the segregated section of the park to play on the “whites only” courts and were arrested. Today, right inside the park which also contains the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, you can view the famous Baltimore Tennis Marker listing the names of those 24 tennis players.

Arena Playhouse

In 1953, nine aspiring Black actors and actresses formed Arena Players, the oldest continuously operating African-American community theater group in the country. Arena Players has included famous Baltimoreans such as Howard Rollins and Charles Dutton, and continues to entertain audiences each year with theatrical performances by African-American playwrights.

Sojourner-Douglass College

In 1972, an off-campus branch of Antioch University called Homestead Montebello Center Antioch University changed its name to Sojourner-Douglass College. Named for African-American abolitionists Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, the college focuses on continuing education for working adults. Sojourner-Douglass College is located at 500 North Caroline Street in Baltimore.

Negro Heroes of the U.S. Monument

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.

Broadcasting Oprah Winfrey

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.

Black Classic Press

In 1978, the Black Classic Press was founded to print “obscure and significant works by and about people of African descent.” Black Classic Press has published many authors including Walter Mosley, John G. Jackson, John Henrik Clarke, Yosef ben-Jochannan, Dorothy Porter and Charles L. Blockson.

Henry Hall: Father of Baltimore’s Black Engineers

The National Aquarium in Baltimore, a popular attraction since its opening in 1981, received a rare fish collection from Henry Hall even before the Aquarium opened its doors. Born in 1896, Henry Hall was an African-American engineer, inventor, educator, philanthropist—and a mentor to Baltimore’s African-American engineers. Hall traveled the world collecting aquatic animals. He donated his entire collection to the Aquarium. In honor of his generous gift, the Aquarium established the Henry Hall Endowment Fund to provide scholarships and internships for students in middle school, high school and college.

National Great Blacks In Wax Museum

In 1983, Dr. Elmer and Joanne Martin founded the National Great Blacks In Wax Museum in downtown Baltimore. They started out with four wax figures, traveling 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 dramatic, full-scale model of a slave ship.

Oriole Park

On April 6th, 1992, Oriole Park at Camden Yards 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.

Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture

On June 25, 2005, the grand opening of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture was held in downtown Baltimore. With permanent exhibitions and special visiting exhibits and collections, the museum shows life and history through the eyes of Black Marylanders. It is the East Coast’s largest African-American museum and the second-largest museum of its kind in the world.

The Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park

June 2006 marked the completion of Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, located on the waterfront in historic Fell’s Point. Many free African-Americans migrated to Fell’s Point from the South seeking jobs and housing in the 1800s. The Park’s permanent exhibits tell the stories of Frederick Douglass, Isaac Myers and the founding of the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company.

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