Inside City Hall: Trying once again to create a civil rights historic panel

Revealed at today's hearing: The body approved a similar commission in 1998.


1948 protest outside of segregated Ford’s Theatre in downtown Baltimore.

Photo by: Paul Henderson, courtesy of Maryland Historical Society.

How easy it is to forget.

Two thirds of the way through a City Council hearing today, in which everyone praised a plan to establish an African American Civil Rights Historic Commission, Louis C. Fields offered a rude reminder – this movie has been seen before.

About 13 years ago, Fields said, the City Council passed a nearly identical resolution to establish an African American historic commission – “and the commission never did anything.”

The awkward moment passed fairly quickly as the Council took other testimony and committee chairman James Kraft mused that the body was sometimes accused of being commission-creation-happy.

But this panel, Kraft vowed, would be different. State delegate Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. (44th) got up and pledged to help get state funding for the commission, and City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said he would press for a matching city grant.

The irony was that Mitchell and Young – as well as the bill’s lead sponsor, Mary Pat Clarke – were all members of the City Council in 1998 when the “Commission to Preserve and Promote African-American Cultural and Historical Sites and Records” was unanimously approved.

State delegates Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. and Barbara A. Robinson (sitting to his right) today pledged to get state funding for the civil rights commission. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

State delegates Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. and Barbara A. Robinson (sitting to right) today pledged to get state funding for the civil rights historic commission. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

This fact went unacknowledged (except by Fields) at today’s hearing, but was later confirmed by Legislative Reference.

There is no record of the fate of the 1998 commission, which was to gather the mayor’s office, the NAACP, Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) and others to develop plans for a historic site and record-collection.

The commission apparently fell into the dustbin of City Hall history when Martin O’Malley swept into office in December 1999, replacing Mayor Kurt Schmoke, who signed the resolution creating the commission on May 14, 1998.

Will This Commission Be Different?

Today’s plan to “preserve, link and promote” the history of the civil rights struggle in Baltimore through a new commission will need more than fine words to accomplish its goals.

After listening to the testimony, Councilwoman Clarke said a capital funding campaign could be one approach to funding the panel. She noted that historic buildings that played important roles in local African American history often “look as if nobody cares.”

Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway, of Union Baptist Church, said, “We’re losing our civil rights memory,” and noted that Rev. Martin Luther King came to Baltimore to learn about peaceful protests against segregation, which he carried back to the South.

Hathaway said that promoting civil rights history could have economic benefits through increased tourism.

Helena Hicks, who participated in a successful 1955 protest against segregated lunch counters at Read’s Drug Stores, said, “I have such mixed feelings” about a commission because it may prove a bust by not focusing on the task of collecting a written body of history about the local movement.

“We have to do this very carefully,” she said, by hiring quality staff to compile solid information. She and others emphasized that students in Baltimore city schools need to be taught about the systematic discrimination that took decades to overcome.

Louis Fields, who is president of the Baltimore African American Tourism Council, said visitors to the city want “authentic history” about the black experience, but often complain to him that historic sites are in rundown parts of the city, such as the Great Blacks in Wax Museum on East North Avenue.

“Visitors ask me, ‘Why is there so much investment in the Inner Harbor, and why is there so little investment in the neighborhoods where people live,'” Fields told the Council.

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  • krisnorthrup

    thank you for reporting on this….speaks volumes about feel-good but do-nothing commissions

  • krisnorthrup

    thank you for the article pointing out the creation of these feel-good commissions that do nothing .  What a waste of time

  • James Hunt

    “Visitors ask me, ‘Why is there so much investment in the Inner Harbor,
    and why is there so little investment in the neighborhoods where people
    live,’” Fields told the Council.


    Yessirree. No investment outside of the Inner Harbor. Except for the 100s and 100s of millions spent in Park Heights, Upton and Middle East. Except for the completely redeveloped former high rise housing projects. Except for the subway and light rail lines which have a grand total of four stops (of dozens overall) within three blocks of the Inner Harbor. Except for the billions spent over the years on schools that barely educate and the billions more on transfer payments of one kind or another to people who don’t live near the Inner Harbor. Try taking a walk through Johnston Square. It had been almost completely rebuilt — every house renovated and repainted — when I volunteered there in 1980. Today, it looks like London after the Blitz. “Investment” implies a return on money spent. Johnston Square today should tell you everything you need to understand about “investment outside the Inner Harbor.” It only works when the neighborhood is committed to making good on that investment.

    • Gerald Neily

      Jamie, government/nonprofit sector “investment” that spends $300K on a house with a market value of $80K isn’t investment. Then again, a lot of our Inner Harbor investment hasn’t been much better than that either.

    • ZacharyMurray

      You’re claims are totally unsubstantiated. Have you read any policy analysis on development in Baltimore, particularly under Schaefer. 100’s of millions of dollars have not been spent in Park Heights. If anything millions have been lost due to subprime loans aka “ghetto loans” for “mud people”. The amount of goodwill energy you and others put into helping out east baltimore 30 years ago is nice but did very little to address the chronic miseducation, underemployment, hunger, and poverty that those communities were beginning to confront under Reagan. The city cut millions from the school budget to float bonds and give tax incentives to developers downtown. And during that time most federal dollars CBDG etc. went to downtown/inner harbor. There was minimal Black participation in most of those project especially the private BDC ones.  

      • James Hunt

         Zach, old chum, l’ve lived in and loved and studied this fair city since the last time a Republican was mayor (with a few years in exile in Pittsburgh, Frederick, London and New Hampshire thrown in there), so I have a pretty fair sense of the boodle that’s been ladled around this town since the advent of the Great Society. It’s been a considerable sum, and the Harbor ain’t even the half of it. Further, I’ve never met these “mud people” you refer to here in Baltimore. We had “mud season” in New Hampshire (“nine months of winter and three months of bad sledding”) … do “mud people” have some connection to that? Has the universal adoption of indoor plumbing here in town made no difference?

  • ZacharyMurray

    I think a great way to commemorate the legacy of civil rights in Baltimore would be to build NEW institutions and capacity to fight the civil rights issues of today like segregated schools, vast income inequality, gentrification, and hunger. 

    • Day_Star

      Zachary, please explain to me how the word gentrification can be placed beside segregation and hunger?  Gentrification is, by its definition, people (Black, White, Brown, whatever) with middle to higher incomes choosing to live in mixed-income neighborhoods.  Should people with means shun themselves from the diversity of urban living and, in fact, segregate themselves?  Income segregation only widens income disparity.  Oh, and the taxes they pay in the city rather than the suburbs helps feed the needy.  I see before me great contradictions. 

  • Barnadine_the_Pirate

    This is moronic. We already have too much development paralysis and status-quo inertia. There is no coherent reason for having another historic preservation commission. We should be putting sharp, strict limits on the number of properties that can be slapped with the “historic” tag, such that choosing to freeze one thing requires making an actual hard choice about what should and should not be preserved. Instead, they’re talking about making it even HARDER to turn desolate ruins into economically viable property.

    I guarantee you that from an economic perspective, whatever marginal, mythical, almost certainly never-to-be-realized economic benefits that can be derived from “increased tourism” will be insignificant compared to the economic costs imposed by preventing redevelopment and the general “we must not ever do anything ever” mindset that has paralyzed the city for years now.

    This city’s aversion to change would be understandable if it was thriving.  What about the decline and decay of the city makes people think “we must prevent anything from ever being changed”?

    • RickFromBmore

      find your aversion to preserving our remaining historic fabric
      to be downright comical. With the possible exception of Boston (and maybe DC) I can’t think of another city on the East Coast that has wrecked its historic core like Baltimore. And what has this gotten us? Little more than a lot of empty parking lots and numerous failed development schemes. If anything, historic preservation has been weak in Baltimore. What roadblocks there have been to new development have been the result of the city’s declining economic fortunes, not preservation laws.   I hope this commission gets off the ground and imposes real limitations on anyone’s ability to trash the remnants of the civil rights years.

  • discer

    Wouldn’t be the first time politicians tossed a hollow bone to appease.

  • Day_Star

    My statements that Baltimore is obsessed with the past and people’s race is supported, once again.  Nothing says “Welcome to Baltimore” and “Make Baltimore your home” like a commission designed specifically to favor and highlight one race over all others.  Baltimore is 64% Black when it was just 24% in 1950.  It’s trending towards Detroit.  Why the insecurities on lost heritage?  Is it not the other way around?  Baltimore is described by some as a “Black city.”  Let’s make it official and put one group’s history on a pedestal and underhandedly shake down everyone else with guilt. 

    That’s my Baltimore!  Wait, maybe it’s not.  The bum spatting racial taunts at a family living in a mixed neighborhood might be on to something.  

  • ZacharyMurray

    Well Day_Star I would encourage you to do some deeper reading on how this city’s policies supporting gentrification have played out. Gentrification in Baltimore, particularly around the harbor has resulted in massive displacement of the poor (Black and White alike). Additionally, I don’t think there has been any real evidence to suggest that the supposed increase in “taxes they pay in the city” have justified all of the subsidies the city puts out to attract them. This city has faced deficits of over $200 million in the last 3 years. Perhaps the cumulative investment in attracting the rich to the city has done something to “save” certain parts of the city, but these areas tend to be among the most segregated in Baltimore both by race and income. 

    As for your point regarding how the preservation of Baltimore’s civil rights history involves supposedly favoring of one group over another: Civil Rights was a multiracial movement  for equality. This means by preserving that history you would inevitably also highlight the efforts of those whites, gays, and others brave enough to turn away from ignorance and fight for the freedom of others. I would encourage you to take that same step in 2012. Ignorance on top of Discrimination and Segregation seem to be more of a problem today than they were in 1960.  

  • Day_Star

    Zachary, gentrification around the harbor is, by-and-large, from home owners happily selling and taking their winnings. With the Homestead Act and relatively moderate assessments in the $200’s, it would be a case of not being able to pay the last remaining years of their 30-year mortgage or the City’s 2X real estate taxes that would cause a long time resident to be economically forced from their home in Canton/Fells/Fed Hill.

    There are 40,000+ abandoned properties in the City and growing. Historic working class neighborhoods are emptying-out. Let’s not get our panities in a wad about 3 neighborhoods with something like 5% of the City’s land area where supply > demand.

    As for the commission, there are 1,001 ways to honor history without more City red tape. This commission is all about racial identity politics that conveniently empowers the politicians and friends of politicians who will sit on the panel. Baltimore is an ugly place to try to get things done and this will make it even uglier and more uncertain.

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