Mayoral panel wants frieze to honor historic 1955 Read’s sit-in

Classy wall sculptures in New York and Washington are examples of what the memorial could be like.

pension bldg frieze

The frieze atop the National Building Museum in Washington was cited as a model for the Read’s commemoration.

Photo by: Einar Einarsson Kvaran

Installing a frieze, a long sculptural horizontal band, on the exterior wall of Read’s Drug Store is the choice of a committee created by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to honor a student sit-in that is considered a landmark event in the civil rights movement.

The commemoration, to be part of the “Superblock” retail-residential development at Howard and Lexington streets, has been a closely guarded secret since the committee submitted its report to the mayor three months ago.

In choosing a bas-relief wall sculpture to depict the January 1955 protest by Morgan State students and others that ended “white-only” lunchrooms at the drug store chain, the committee went beyond a simple plaque on the building, but not as far as installing an interactive educational exhibit, as suggested by the Downtown Partnership and other groups.

The commemoration has been a source of intense interest. Preservationists and civil rights advocates first battled the developer who wanted to tear down the Read’s building, then watched uneasily as the developer agreed to preserve the exterior walls of the structure under a deal brokered by the mayor.

Under political pressure from the black community to recognize the 1955 sit-in, Rawlings-Blake appointed Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway, pastor of Union Baptist Church, to chair the Read’s Drugstore Commemoration Design Committee.

The 15-member committee met several times in November, held a public meeting and submitted its report to the mayor on December 12.

PIA Request for Report

The Brew asked for the committee’s unreleased report and other material under Maryland’s Public Information Act.

More than 50 pages of material were released, portions of it blacked out, or redacted, by the City Solicitor’s Office on grounds that the mayor has not yet announced her plans for Read’s.

The released material shows that the committee and the mayor’s chief advisor, Brian Greenan, proposed a frieze similar to a memorial to firefighters who lost their lives on 9/11 in New York. The bronze bas-relief sculpture (56-feet-long by 6-feet-high) was installed at Ladder Co. 10 at the south border of the World Trade Center site.

Greenan also pointed to the frieze that wraps around the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., which narrates the story of Civil War soldiers in scenes reminiscent of the “horsemen’s frieze” originally on the Parthenon.

“I showed the Mayor an image of it when I briefed her,” Greenan wrote in an e-mail. “If money were no object, something like this would be great.”

Greenan sought out the price for the firefighters frieze in New York ($530,000 contributed by a New York law firm).

If there were discussions on how on to fund the proposed Read’s frieze, that material was redacted.

The Downtown Partnership has offered to donate $100,000 for the commemoration. The Superblock developers, Lexington Square Partners and Dawson Co., have also offered to contribute. There has also been talk of soliciting Morgan State University alumni.

This bronze wall memorial at Ladder Company 10 in New York, for firefighters killed on 9/11, is another example of a frieze proposed to Mayor Rawlings-Blake. (Photo from Reuters)

Many Other Ideas Proposed

In its report to the mayor, the committee noted that it had received several dozen ideas. They ranged from a life-size replica of the lunch counter where a half-dozen Morgan State students staged the sit-in to photographic and interactive displays with oral histories playing.

Other ideas included turning the building into a non-profit educational and training center, developing a Civil Rights Trail with Read’s as the nucleus, and designating the site as a federal park and monument.

When informed of the committee’s recommendation, Helena Hicks, who participated in the 1955 sit-in, said in an interview, “A frieze might do it. At least it could be seen. I certainly don’t want another statue, like the Billie Holiday statue, that sits neglected in a vacant lot.”

Hicks has been pushing for a memorial for a number of years and has mostly felt thwarted by “our politicians’ indifference” to local African-American history.

She said yesterday, “I’m glad to hear that this may be moving forward. It is an embarrassment to the city to have such little history about the civil rights era when Baltimore produced so many civil rights leaders beginning with Thurgood Marshall and so many significant contributions to the movement.”

A black teamster is depicted in the Civil War frieze in Washington. The frieze was sculpted by Caspar Buberi in 1887. (Photo by Einar Einarsson Kvaran)

A black teamster is depicted in the Civil War frieze in Washington. The frieze was sculpted by Caspar Buberi in 1887. (Photo by Einar Einarsson Kvaran)

Ground Rules

In laying out her charge last November, Mayor Rawlings-Black told the commemoration committee that said she “wanted a process that was as independent as possible from both City Hall and the Superblock development team,” according to the report written by Rev. Hathaway, Michelle Harris Bondima and Rev. S. Todd Yeary.

But a number of ground rules were placed on the committee’s work by the development team, according to Greenan, the mayor’s project coordinator for the Westside.

“Some of the Design Committee members may expect the final product to be installed inside Read’s; the Dawson Company does not want to dedicate tenant square footage for this; they want the installation to be outside the building,” Greenan noted in a briefing memorandum.

“Some of the Committee members have asked if the process will result in a museum or a design similar to what was achieved to honor the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins. The Dawson Company does not share that vision,” he continued.

And finally: “The Downtown Partnership has been quoted as saying they envision a high-quality, interactive experience for the Read’s Drugstore sit-in. The Dawson Company does not appear to share that vision.”

In a February 8 e-mail, an officer at the Baltimore Development Corp. (BDC) tells Greenan that the developer will be closely involved in deciding where to locate the frieze: “I just e-mailed Bailey [Bailey Pope, senior vice president of design] so that we can think about the Commemoration location. Stay tuned.”

Under the current schedule, the city and developers have until April 30 to agree to terms for the sale of the now-vacant Superblock parcel bounded by Howard, Lexington and Fayette streets and Park Avenue.

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  • Jo Brown

    Perfectly fitting.  The classical style will serve the city’s architecture well, and the formal style gives appropriate respect to these young men and women whose courage was as great as that of any who marched off to war.

  • Unellu

    Friezes are exquisite and they depict a story to those who know the story.  They can be admired for effect from a distance–they are busy, three dimensional and stunning.  Yet, they can be inaccessible, too far up or too far down, and except for historians steeped in the study of art, they can be meaningless to those will take them in without understanding their relevance or significance.  A frieze is a way of honoring without actually honoring and paying homage without actually paying homage, in lean times, to assuage guilt and appease protesters.  A frieze high up on a building will not perpetuate a historical memory, or give continuity to a seminal event as would happen more palpably and graphically, if the event were represented in words, photographs and enactments like in a living museum.  There are many museums that display ancient friezes, though.  It is always amazing to see one of those, up close but they need explanations from experts.  In museums such explanations are available right next to the displays.  So Reads will have a frieze, it will be beautiful and if the city of Baltimore continues its trend of neglecting the city’s monuments, the frieze will be removed by some future generation and be placed in our National Museum of African American History and Culture, for all to see up close, with an explanation about the civil rights heroes of Baltimore.  One can only hope.         

  • Marc

    I like the idea of an allegorical frieze! (As long as it doesn’t come in the form of some absurd, abstract starchitectural doodad trying to make a mystical, esoteric “statement.”) 

  • Anonymous

    I think what the City is failing to get here is that Read’s is the place where as far as we know, the first successful sit-in EVER occurred. The term “sit-in” was not even coined at that time. There are many African Americans in this country, as well as others interested in civil rights, who have money to travel. Read’s could be a destination for tourism, but nobody is going to take a trip to visit a plaque, or even a frieze.

    I’m sure others have lots of ideas for what might be the building’s best use to honor the history. Mine is that Read’s could have the interior recreated to look somewhat like back in the day – good photos are available – and it could be operated by an African American restaurateur who is excited by the history, as a place where once segregated people can not only come and eat, but those who were once kept out are now running the business. Visitors could sit in the very place where it all happened and have a meal. As long as the history was promoted, this could be a big draw, I would think.Beyond that, as a preservationist, I have concerns that you do not generally honor the history of a building by making major changes to its historical facade. Perhaps a frieze in an art deco style that is in keeping with the building’s design, but clearly a new addition, could work, but I would want to see a good design before acquiescing to the idea that this might be at best a woefully unimaginative solution that is really missing an opportunity, but might be some sort of compromise solution that is not totally offensive.

  • Tom

    Baltimore’s Oreo Mayoral administration & BDC sells our history to developers. 

    What does it say when the predominately white establishment that still controls Baltimore City, has been wasting millions in public funds in the courts for over a decade, intent on demolishing and *gentrifying* the historic “Superblock” assemblage , the very site of a significant, racially-suppressed inaugural act of civil rights protest by Morgan students in 1955, a full five years before Greensboro, NC ? The 1955 Read’s Drugs lunch counter sit-in protest, apparently the nation’s very first, is a revelation to note and honor, as over 50 years of suppression have now been revealed. The students from Morgan were particularly principled and courageous in an era when the media in Baltimore, including the Afro-American, moved to intensionally suppress the significance of this potential spark plug protest event, and the racial rebellion they feared it may trigger. The facts about our seminal sit-in protest at Read’s Drugs in 1955 have finally emerged from under an intensional shroud, and as a result, it’s time to change the history books. What a compelling, multifaceted story!. It’s also time to acknowledge that even the African-American press in 1955 was complicit in playing down and covering-up the magnitude of what had occurred. Retiring BDC Czar Brodie, and our puppet-Oreo Mayor administration are unfortunately in league, and ready with bulldozers to level a unique historic landmark, just as new and expanded Civil Rights museums are emerging to honor the national struggle for justice that continues today. Baltimore City, however, still seeks to suppress and diminish the significance of this civil rights first that occurred here in 1955, compounding its initial suppression by our white establishment leaders back in 1955. It’s unbelievably short-sighted for government to be serving the developer’s needs, and not serving our citizen s by acting in their best interests. We must learn from the tragic razing of The Royal Theatre, and not permit these shortsighted, costly BDC blunders to permit the irreplaceable historic fabric of Baltimore to be destroyed and hauled away, fueled by an antiquated racist gentrification development policy. The *bulldozer madness* isn’t only dismal, misguided BDC and City Hall leadership and developer hype and spin; it’s criminal negligence to be stopped in its tracks. Read’s (1934) and the diverse, historically unique Superblock must be saved. As a predominately African American city, we must “Protect the Irreplaceable” from the shortsighted, scorched-earth barbarism of Baltimore’s aged, urban renewal-minded establishment.William Donald Shaefer realized this and warned the citizens and our leaders from his first-hand point of view in the 2001 short documentary, “Baltimore’s Westside Story”, “don’t get hooked up with the bulldozer people, that’s a dead end.”

    • Gerald Neily

      I assume this comment is by Tom Kiefaber, white guy, since this repeats the exact statement in another of his comments. Please, Tom, don’t just keep plastering your same statements all over the Brew, and please don’t insult the entire white race for your accusations against the mayor and her administration. (Well, at least you put *gentrifying* in asterisks.)

  • Tom Kiefaber

    Gerald, Yes “Tom” is Tom Kiefaber, “white guy”  and I intended my post to be  fully attributed. 

    It is certainly was not my intent to insult the white race, and I do not believe I have done so. To note that our sell-out-the- citizens mayoral administration fits the “oreo” category is an observation, not an accusation. 

    Please note that I posted fragments of the lengthy post below on other Brew articles when  the fragments were applicable to the content. Not all Brew readers peruse each article. If you care to address my actual comments, Gerald, please do so.  I’m interested in your assessments. Please refrain, however, from the carping over silly issues, it’s beneath you.

  • Unellu


    To be forgotten is a curse,
    to come unglued from
    every memory–to be erased
    is the dread of most men and women
    who grasp at immortality
    from generation to generation
    in the faces of their children
    and their children’s children
    men and women see themselves–
    in the letters, the songs,
    the poems and the stories they write,
    or repeat to others and others,
    passed down the line from attics
    flushed out to be examined–
    their collectibles and their collections
    paraded and evaluated for worth.

    In Madagascar the dead are remembered
    on the day the earth is dug–
    every seven years–
    when the before people are exhumed–
    by the now people–
    toddy flows,
    food and laughter punctuate the occasion
    and puncture the fables about dying as a tragedy–
    it is no tragedy–it is a cherished event–
    there is music and even dance–
    when from the crypts, bones are brought out–
    examined and wrapped in silk shrouds–
    returned to where the worms turn–
    the turning of the bones– it is called–
    some Christians forbid it–
    deride it as sin–but the Malagasy assert-
    to honor their before people–
    by hauling their bones from the underground
    to the daylight–
    to feast them and feed them music–
    is a birthright no one should undermine.

    Longer the memory for bad
    than the memory for good–
    clearer the memory for bad–
    recalled in fear and loathing–
    in spasms of traumatic pain,
    it passes from the brain to the body–
    as distress and horror–
    it takes shape
    when a sound, a thought,
    a voice triggers the mood,
    the mutilation, the mayhem,
    during an event that has passed
    into a time before time–
    where all things are stored–
    that have meaning for all people–
    even the forgotten are there
    in the darkness–
    moaning for many memories
    to house their lives–

    But it is not to be–
    the unremembered far surpass the remembered,
    they pass into the realm of the extirpated–
    their big deeds recalled only once in a while–
    for a short time–
    by those who knew them well,
    but for the most part–they exemplify–
    that we live like shooting stars–
    tumbling in the sky–
    our passage marked by
    death happening twice–
    once when we evaporate to gas and dust–
    and twice when
    no one can tell–
    when or why we were here
    or even if we made a difference….

    Usha Nellore



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