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Race in Baltimore: a Personal Perspective

When I was growing up during World War II on Locust Point, in South Baltimore, near Fort McHenry, it was a majority White city. Seventy-six percent of the population of around 950,000, as late as 1950, were White, and 24% were Black. It was also very segregated along racial lines.

Recently, my wife, Ann and I traveled to South America. One of the folks on the tour was a very sweet lady, a former school teacher, from Mississippi. She told us some tales, in an apologetic tone, about how segregation worked in her home state. I think I shocked her by responding that my Baltimore, on that point, may have been worse!

Back then, there were two substantial Black neighborhoods in the Southside area. One was located in Cherry Hill, near the Hanover Street bridge. (It’s attorney Billy Murphy’s home turf.) There were a few Blacks, too, found way down by Hawkins Point. Also, on Ostend Street, before the new stadiums were built, a small number of Black families resided there. On and behind Hanover Street, near the Cross Street Market, however, a larger Black community could be found. It was known as the Sharp-Leadenhall district.

I was raised first on the 1200 block of Haubert Street, only steps away from the waterfront and the Procter & Gamble (P&G) plant, now the site of Under Armour. As a child, I remember Black men walking down our street in the morning. They were headed, I found out later, to the waterfront. They were longshoremen. They had traveled to Locust Point from their homes, via the street car. It ran along Fort Avenue and intersected with Haubert Street.

I went to a Catholic grade school, Our Lady of Good Counsel (all White); Calvert Hall High School (1951-55, all White); and the U. of Baltimore, pre-law and Law School (1959-64, all White.) Today, a Black man, the former Mayor of the city, the Hon. Kurt Schmoke, is the President of that excellent and growing institution.

The first Black man that I knew by name was Bill Haile. I was around 21-years old then. I met him while I was working on the waterfront as a member of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) between 1955 and 1960. Even though the main ILA unions halls were racially segregated, and there was then a White majority membership in the port, Bill Haile was the boss of the Baltimore waterfront. Go figure. I recall Mr. Haile’s gentle nature.

In that era, restaurants, taverns, movie theaters, and other facilities in Baltimore were all segregated, along with housing and public schools. I don’t recall, however, the street cars being segregated. In 1956, Southern High School, on Federal Hill, opened its doors to Black students, via a mandated Supreme Court decision. There was, initially, some verbally-heated opposition to it.

Indeed, there was then, a big dividing line then between the races. One athlete, who helped to break down that barrier was Lenny Moore. A Black All-American out of Penn State, he was known as “The Reading Flash.” He played on the Baltimore Colts teams of the 50s and 60s, whose quarterback was the legendary John Unitas.

I recall one Sunday afternoon in 1958 at the now-defunct Memorial Stadium on 33rd Street. It was a Colts game against the San Francisco 49ers. I was hanging out with all my White buddies from Locust Point in the upper deck behind the south goal post.

It was a very close game. In the fourth quarter, Moore got the ball on hand-off from QB Unitas and swept around left end, broke a couple of tackles and dashed down field into the end zone. We all went bonkers cheering our butts off. It brought tears to my eyes, witnessing that scene. The Colts won by a 35-27 score.

That’s the game that clinched the division title for the Colts and led directly to the memorable NFL championship overtime title game against the New York Giants, in Yankee Stadium, on December 28th. I’m pleased to say I was at that event.

From my perspective as a Southsider, I think Moore’s gifted and classy performances over the years with the Colts, and later his contributions to his own community, opened up a lot of hearts in White Baltimore.

This was around the period, also, when the late Teddy McKeldin was Mayor of Baltimore for a second time (1963-67). He was a liberal with a capital “L” and a unrepentant champion of Civil Rights. McKeldin, a famed orator, made it a habit to speak regularly at Black Churches. He was probably the subject of more vile cursing than any man ever in Baltimore history. But, this giant of a human being, with a soul of a saint, alway rose above the vicious name-calling. McKeldin Square in the Inner Harbor is named after him.

After law school, in 1966, I was appointed as a prosecutor in the Municipal Court, at the Eastern District. I can’t remember the details, but I do recall one controversial case where the defense counsel was Juanita Jackson Mitchell. She was an icon in the Black community. Ms. Mitchell was also a very passionate advocate. Her client, to her joy, was acquitted by Judge Basil A. Thomas.

Things were starting to change and change fast on the racial front in the late 60s. Young Tommy D’Alesandro was the mayor then. The riots in 1968 (far more destructive than the one last Spring) had shaken him to his core. He had decided, in 1971, not to run for a second term. George L. Russell, a D’Alesandro’s appointee, was the first black man to hold the office of City Solicitor for Baltimore. I was named an Assistant City Solicitor in 1969.

Russell was a darn good attorney and administrator. He promoted me to a section chief before he left office eventually to go lawyering for Peter Angelos. His successor, Ben Brown, also Black, now deceased, and a former judge, was kind enough in the early 70s to appoint me to the post of Chief of the Litigation Section.

The mayor then was the municipal legend himself – William Donald Schaefer. I left city office in 1980. My replacement Otho M. Thompson, later became City Solicitor in 1996. He became the third Black man to hold that office.

Finally, with a Black Mayor and Black majority City Council now in office in City Hall, old Baltimore has gone through some huge racial changes during my days on the planet. Today, with a population of around 622,000, you have Blacks at a 63% majority. I’m sure there are more changes coming. The results of this next municipal election will be very important. Hopefully, it will all lead down the road to a more vibrant Baltimore City.

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