Notes on "Old West Baltimore: Segregation, African-American Culture, and The Struggle for Equality" by Karen Olsen in The Baltimore Book: New Views of Local History (1991)


Before 1960, housing segregation forced African-Americans from all economic levels to live together in the same community. Today, residential segregation in Old West Baltimore is based as much on class as on race; the community has been virtually abandoned to poorer blacks.

The community was built in the late 19th century by racial segregation... but paradoxically its citizens used their excluded status to build a center of African-American culture that made Old West Baltimore a highly desirable place to live.

Before 1890, blacks had been widely distributed throughout the city. By the end of the 19th c., however, there was a sharp rise in the size of Baltimore's black population, a result of migration from the south and from rural areas of Maryland. In response to overcrowding and poor sanitation in the alley districts of S. Baltimore, many blacks moved north and west to the neighborhood bounded by North Avenue (N), Franklin St. (S), Madison St. (E), and Fulton St. (W).

By 1904 one half of the African-American population of the city was living in Old West Baltimore. It was a socially and economically diverse neighborhood. Black professionals (doctors, lawyers, teachers, undertakers, and small businessmen) bought houses on Druid Hill Ave. Black working class families rented more affordable dwellings. There were also alley houses, small structures built along narrow back alleys and lacking the basic amenities of urban life (like running water), which housed poor people. 

Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church (Dolphin and Ettings)

Baltimore always had a large population of free blacks. By 1820, the majority of African-Americans in the city were not slaves but 'free persons of color'. Sharp Street Church in South Baltimore was a place of worship but also a social, cultural and political center for Baltimore's blacks since 1802. In 1864 it held the first regional conference for African-American Methodists and from 1867 until 1872, the Centenary Biblical Institute, precursor of Morgan State University, met there. In 1898 the congregation migrated to West Baltimore and its current location.

Douglass High School (Baker and Carey)

Douglass High School was erected by the city in 1925 and served the West Baltimore community until 1954, when the high school moved to a new facility on Gwynns Falls Parkway. Schools for African-Americans had become a state responsibility following the Civil War, but facilities were entirely separate and vastly inferior to schools provided for white children. The original funding formula stipulated that school taxes paid by whites would go to white schools while taxes paid for blacks would go to black schools, thus guaranteeing that black schools would remain inferior.

Black schools were run by white teachers and principals until the turn of the century when African-American professionals were hired at lower wages. Between 1900 and the 1930's, overcrowding was so severe in black schools that most held half day sessions. In 1934 a Baltimore reformer reported that public schools were careful not to teach African-American children any of the skills that would enable them to encroach on the white monopoly of trades and professions.

Baltimore's African-American citizens clamored, petitioned, sued and demonstrated for good education for their children. Beginning in 1865 a group of 40 African-American citizens pooled their resources to buy a building at Lexington and Davis Streets for the Douglass Institute, organized for "the intellectual advancement of the colored portion of the community." Agitation from African American leaders gradually won improvements in all the facilities provided by the public school system, but jazz musician Cab Calloway remembered the opening of the new Douglass High School in 1925 as a particularly important event: "On the day we moved into the new school building- it was my sophomore year- they had a big inauguration ceremony. Everybody was there. City officials, school department officials, parents, leaders in the community, ministers, everybody. The auditorium was packed. Negroes were proud as hell of having this new school."

Although Douglass High School was a segregated school, it was also the focus of enormous pride and enthusiasm for Baltimore's African-American community. The school was another example of how segregation served as a double-edged sword, excluding African Americans from white institutions, yet unifying them in institutions they could claim as their own and within which they flourished.

During the first decades after the school's founding, one-third of Douglass graduates went on to college or normal school. Thousands of Baltimore's teachers, salespeople, business owners, clerical workers, industrial employees and government officials received their education at Douglass.

The list of illustrious alumni includes Justice Thurgood Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court; former U.S. Representative Parren J. Mitchell of the 7th Congressional District; Verda Welcome, the first African American woman to serve as a state senator in the Maryland legislature; Calvin Lightfoot, first African-American warden of the Baltimore City Jail; Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson, longtime leader of the Maryland NAACP; Carl Murphy, editor of the Afro-American, jazz singer Ethel Ennis, band leader Cab Calloway; and pro football star Raymond Chester.

The Royal Theater 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue

In its heyday Pennsylvania Avenue was a bustling shopping district for Old West Baltimore by day. At night the street came alive as an entertainment mecca, featuring clubs, music, dancing, and most important- The Royal. Built in 1921, the Royal Theater sat nearly 1400 people, but it was in the late 1930's and just after WWII that the Royal enjoyed its best years. A name band was billed every week, along with the country's top African American singers and comedians.

The Royal owed much of its success to segregation because African American spectators and entertainers were barred from white theaters. African American performers traveled the 'chitlin circuit,' a national network of white-owned but black patronized vaudeville and movie houses that included The Apollo in Harlem, The Howard in Washington, D.C. and The Royal in Baltimore. All the black jazz greats- Fats Waller, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong- played exclusively at The Royal when they were in Baltimore. Singers Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday were regulars at The Royal, and Pearl Bailey got her start there as a chorus girl. A show at The Royal typically included a movie, a chorus line, acrobats, tumblers, an exotic dancer, and a team of comedians to augment the big-band performance. Comedians Mobs Mabley and Pigmeat Marcum played The Royal to capacity crowds. For thirty years The Royal was a source of cultural pride among Old West Baltimore residents. In its heyday it was remembered as 'the most beautiful place you ever want to find, "the place where everything was jumpin'." 

The Royal Theater was just the first of several good time spots visited on "The Avenue". After the show the audience stopped at Mannheimer's on Eutaw Street for a bite to eat, then drifted back to the Strand Ballroom or the Albert Hall on Pennsylvania Avenue to dance or listen to "cutting contests" between visiting musicians who tried to outdo each other with improvisations.

In the 1930's and 40's whites flocked to Pennsylvania Avenue to hear the pioneers of jazz- men and women who were making music history, who were in great demand, but who could not perform anywhere in Baltimore except the Royal because of the restriction of racial segregation.

The eradication of Jim Crow laws in the 1950's and 1960's, along with the advent of television, the construction of the Civic Center, and the decline of big bands, made The Royal obsolete. By 1965 The Royal had stopped its live performances and was strictly a movie house. On July 21, 1970, the theatre was formally closed with the double feature "Alley Cats" and "I Spit on Your Grave". The building was demolished in 1971 and replaced by a public school.

Throughout the 20th century, the movies, bars, pool halls and theaters along Pennsylvania Avenue were an important source of income for Old West Baltimore residents. The white establishment frowned on pool halls and numbers games, but those enterprises provided capital by making loans to African Americans attempting to buy houses or establish businesses at a time when Baltimore's banks refused to lend to them.