East Federal Street
The woman missed her turn in the ashen light. Driving through one of Baltimore’s hanging-by-a-thread, mixed-use neighborhoods (abandoned warehouses, crumbling rowhomes, shuttered churches), she was picking up her two godchildren from their Saturday 4-H youth meeting.
“Absent-minded, daydreaming,” she said. “Maybe I was tired.”
Veering from her normal route, she suddenly found herself, through the mist and fog, staring up at a gray, photorealistic mural on the side of a two-story concrete wall on East Federal Street. It was a painting recreated from a 1956 black-and-white photograph in the Afro-American newspaper that she’d never seen: a proud father and mother, well-dressed and happy, with seven of their smiling kids strung from tallest to shortest. The family is seen walking together down a city sidewalk next to spit-polished Madison Square.
Each child—from the teenage girl nearly as tall as her dad, to the youngest—carried brown-paper wrapped boxes. They’d been shopping for Easter shoes.
“And I realized, as the faces in the mural are looking back at me, that I know this family,” she recalled, still in disbelief, months later in a mid-town coffee shop. “It’s my grandparents, all my aunts, my uncle, and my mother.”
Artist Michael Owen, of Baltimore Love Project renown, had painted the larger-than-life image as it appeared in the paper on Holy Saturday, March 30, 1956. The effort was a collaboration with local photographer Webster Phillips, whose grandfather, Henry Phillips (father of longtime Baltimore Sun photographer Irv Phillips), shot the original for the Afro-American.
A plaque next to the mural asked viewers to contact the younger Phillips if they could identify the people featured: “Help us save Baltimore history.”
Startled, and moved, the woman dialed the number. “I was blown away,” Phillips said. “You hope you get a call like that. You don’t really expect it.”
The father in the tie and glasses in the photo is the woman’s grandfather. He raised the seven children in the photo, on a postal worker’s salary. There were two older brothers already out of the house by the time the picture was taken.
“Can you imagine?” the gentle-natured, soft-spoken, 53-year-old asked. Her grandmother was a stay-at-home mom until the last of the kids started school. She supplemented the household as a nursing assistant at long-since-closed hospital.
The image remains a striking portrait of an upwardly mobile Black family two years after Brown v. Board of Education segregated Baltimore.
“Everyone in that photo made it to the middle class,” said the woman, who runs a small educational business. “It was the next generation, including me, that began experiencing trauma and problems as the city, and life began falling apart in the ’70s and ’80s.”
She attempted suicide as a young, single mother of a 2-year-old. She would later lose her older brother to mental health issues and substance abuse, not learning until years after the fact that he’d been buried as a John Doe in San Diego.
Her paternal family came to Baltimore from the same Church Creek area on the Eastern Shore of Maryland as Harriet Tubman, about six miles outside Cambridge. It was her great-grandfather, who had been the first to migrate to the city shortly after the turn of the 20th century.
He came to Baltimore as a single man in his 20s. Like so many others during the Great Migration, he sought work and relief from the oppressive Deep South culture on the other side of Chesapeake Bay.
Throughout the 1960s, what were then known as “race riots,” swept the nation. Most, like the violence in Baltimore, began after the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Order unraveled earlier in Cambridge — in 1963 and again in 1967.
As a girl, the woman returned often to the Eastern Shore with her parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins for annual visits over the Memorial Day weekends. She recalled the country cookouts, church on those hot summer Sundays, and stopping at Dairy Queen on the roundtrip back to the city.
Her great-grandfather had been born on the Eastern Shore in the first generation after the Civil War, dying just three years before she was born. He eventually landed a job with union wages and benefits in Baltimore at what would become the world’s biggest steel mill at Sparrows Point, setting his family on firm economic ground. He retired there with a good pension and health care.
Her mother, eight siblings, and grandparents, were one of the first families to move from East Baltimore to the new Cherry Hill development in far south Baltimore in the mid-1940s.
It was the first suburban-style, planned community for African-Americans in the United States, built to handle the massive influx of World War II defense industry workers into Baltimore. And probably the most obvious example of residential segregation by design ever in the country.
After years of delays because of white backlash at other proposed sites, Cherry Hill went up quickly. The federal government demanded Baltimore address its shortage of acceptable housing for African-Americans. Aspirational Black families rushed into the sparkling rowhouses and apartment buildings even before a school, shopping center, or grocery store went up. Infrastructure, including a generous park and community center, soon followed.
“It was a place where the schools were bright and clean. People who grew up there went to work and found good jobs, years later, at Baltimore Gas and Electric, the Social Security Administration, and the phone company,” said Linda Morris, who is from the neighborhood and the author of Cherry Hill: Raising Successful Black Children in Jim Crow Baltimore.
“You know that African proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’?” said the woman whose family is represented on the Federal Street mural. “That was Cherry Hill.”
One of her aunts built a career as a Social Security administrator. Another aunt would become a hospital administrator. Her mother ultimately rose from bank teller to branch manager.
Her uncle was among the leaders of the Read’s Drugstore sit-ins and Northwood Shopping Center segregation protests while a student at what was then Morgan State College. He later served in the Air Force, taught urban affairs at Baltimore City Community College, and was elected to Maryland’s General Assembly.
“You know what is amazing?” the woman asked. “I’ve lost two of my brothers, but my mother and everyone in that mural, other than my grandparents, who have passed, is alive and healthy.”
The short answer in white circles to the question “What happened to Baltimore?” is often reactionary and flippant — “the riots” — the April 1968 crisis following Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis.
In truth, the city’s population had peaked 18 years prior and was already in decline. But it’s also not a wrong answer. White retail businesses and residents — and Black, middle-class residents — decamped over the city line to the counties — in huge numbers in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Most moved to Baltimore County along with Harford, Anne Arundel and to a lesser degree, Carroll County. Much of the city’s tax base and jobs went with them.
The riots, however, did not create the problems in the city’s hyper-segregated Black neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore. The four nights of looting and burning were the capstone of decades of racially discriminatory policies and practices. The most notorious of them was passed by the City Council in 1910, just as the first Great Migration wave was arriving.
The Baltimore Sun called it “The Negro Invasion.” The landmark, discriminatory housing ordinance, eventually cast down by the Supreme Court, forbade white homeowners on majority-white blocks from selling to Black buyers and vice versa. Other discriminatory policies and practices over the ensuing decades included, but were not limited to, redlining, blockbusting, mass incarceration, and a chronically underfunded, overwhelmingly Black public school system.
The country’s sixth-largest city in the 1950’s, imbued with the ethics of productivity and the American Dream, has since been effectively disassembled. Baltimore lost more than 100,000 manufacturing jobs between 1950 and 1995.
One-third of Baltimore’s population has left, leaving a dystopian 17,000 vacant homes and buildings in their wake. None of this shows any sign of reversing, as violent crime and murder continues to rise at the highest rates in the city’s history.
Another sign of the times? Amazon arrived in 2015, the same year as the uprising following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody.
A one-million-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center sprang up on the site of a demolished General Motors plant that once employed 7,000 United Auto Workers.
It was no small irony that at Sparrows Point — atop the similarly-demolished grounds where thousands of blue-collar Black workers, found a home — a second, 855,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center popped up in 2018. The thousands of packaging jobs at Amazon, the highest-valued company in the world, owned by the wealthiest man in the world, pay half the wages of a union steel or automobile job. And they don’t include the health, pension, vacation, sick, and family leave benefits, nor the job protections that typically come with a collective bargaining agreement.
“As a child, I remember growing up in the 1970’s as a good period — mothers scrubbing their front stoops, playing with friends in the park,” said the woman. “In reality, looking back as an adult, my mother was a single mom, and all my friends were growing up in a single-parent home. The loss of those good jobs, the economic impact on families, was already taking its toll. Where were the men supposed to go to work? It just wasn’t as apparent as it would become. But it didn’t just happen. It was caused. Segregation and political decisions did this.”
Baltimore family histories run through all kinds of complicated history because the city itself, both Northern and Southern in its complicated identity, has long been at the intersection of American racism and history. Frederick Douglass, born into slavery on the Eastern Shore, escaped slavery in Baltimore aboard a train headed to Philadelphia. The first death of the Civil War occurred in Baltimore during the Pratt Street Riot. Thurgood Marshall, who grew up here, was refused admittance to the University of Maryland law school in Baltimore.
So it is both coincidental and fitting that in 2015, the woman managed the Hallmark card section at the CVS pharmacy that was looted and set afire on national television during the uprising. And that her daughter, a member of the National Guard, was working off-duty security at Camden Yards the same night — when the Orioles game was canceled because of the rioting.
“After everything died down at the game, I had to walk home because none of the buses, nothing, was moving downtown,” the guardswoman recounted. “I started walking in one direction and saw a car burning. I turned down another street and saw a truck on fire. I went another way and saw people breaking into a store and running out with stuff. It was surreal, and I felt like I was being funneled toward that CVS at Penn-North.
“I texted my mother to let her know I was okay, but I could smell the smoke from the CVS before I got there.”
Noted her mother: “And yet how do you explain this to people who don’t know Baltimore? I love this city through everything. There are so many good people here. I don’t want to live anywhere else.”
She had left school at 19 after learning she was pregnant. She eventually got therapy to deal with her depression. She turned to her church and gardening for healing, becoming a certified master gardener.
She returned to college and earned an associate degree in education, subsequently home-schooling her four children rather than sending them across an increasingly chaotic city to an increasingly chaotic public school system. Her youngest daughter recently graduated from the University of Iowa, her son is an aspiring artist in the city, and her other daughter is a social worker.
Her children prove the city isn’t without hope, but she understands how tough the rows are to plow in wide swaths of Baltimore.
“There are parts of the city that are doing great, but we all know there are two Baltimores. It’s the haves and the have-nots.”
One gets investment, tax breaks, and their trash collected; schools and recreation centers close in the other.
“Children are like seeds. No matter how good the seed may be, it won’t bud and bloom if it isn’t planted in good soil, watered, and cared for,” she said. “The soil in Baltimore isn’t fertile like it once was.”
© Ron Cassie
Ron Cassie is a senior editor at Baltimore magazine, where he has won several national awards. His work has appeared as a notable selection in The Best of American Sports Writing and in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. He’s been a finalist for the Folio and City and Regional Magazine Association Writer of the Year awards. His first book, If You Love Baltimore, It Will Love You Back, was published by Apprentice House last year.