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The Cab Calloway House

Neighborhoodsby Ed Gunts11:00 amDec 12, 20190

New information could save Cab Calloway house from the wrecking ball

CHAP asks the housing department to postpone demolition so it can determine whether the Calloway house is also a civil rights landmark

Above: Since it was purchased by the city for $7,040 in June 2016, the Cab Calloway house has undergone substantial deterioration. This picture was taken last Friday. (Mark Reutter)

A new book suggesting that the former Baltimore home of bandleader Cab Calloway might also be a civil rights landmark may have temporarily saved the city-owned building from the wrecking ball.

The latest twist in the saga of 2216 Druid Hill Avenue came Tuesday when the members of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) said they will ask Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman for a 90-day deferment of plans to tear down the house.

Their decision was based on new information, not yet verified, that the property may have been the home of Andrew J. Reed, a former president of the United Mutual Brotherhood of Liberty, one of the earliest civil rights organizations in the nation and a precursor to the National Afro-American League and the NAACP.

Reed was also the grandfather of Cab Calloway and his older sister Blanche, who was also a musician and bandleader.

CHAP wants 90 days to determine whether Reed actually lived there and doesn’t want the building – one of a derelict block of city-owned rowhouses – knocked down beforehand.

CHAP director Eric Holcomb told the panel that Reed’s role as a civil rights leader is spelled out in a new book, “A Brotherhood of Liberty: Black Reconstruction and its Legacies in Baltimore, 1865-1920,” by Virginia Tech assistant professor Dennis Patrick Halpin.

“Here’s where it gets interesting,” Holcomb said.

“In Cab Calloway’s autobiography, he states that he and Blanche and his family went to live with his grandparents,” he said, “so this could also be the house of Andrew J. Reed, who has significant associations with the United Mutual Brotherhood of Liberty. That’s the new information we have here.”

Cab Calloway's childhood home is located about midway on this block of vacant, city-owned buildings. (Mark Reutter)

Cab Calloway’s childhood home is located midway on the 2200 block of Druid Hill Avenue. All of the properties are vacant and owned by the city. (Mark Reutter)

Groundswell of Support

The book was not the only basis for the temporary reprieve requested by CHAP.

Holcomb said the city has received two petitions that show there is a groundswell of support from around the world for saving the three-story house where Cab Calloway lived when he was a boy, from 1916 to 1921.

He said more than 1,600 people signed one online petition that urges Braverman and Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young to “save the childhood home of Cab and Blanche Calloway.”

A second petition to save the Calloway house has 120 signatures, Holcomb said.

Demolishing Cab Calloway’s house to make way for a park is shortsighted, critics say (6/4/19)

We’ll keep the facade, but rest of the Cab Calloway house goes, Druid Heights CDC says (7/29/19)

Cab Calloway’s childhood house will be razed, HCD says (10/2/19)

Also appearing before CHAP was one of Cab Calloway’s five children.

Cecelia Calloway, 72, said she is the chief executive of the Calloway Legacy Preservation Project, a group formed to celebrate both Cab and Blanche Calloway, and is co-operator of the Hi-De-Ho blog.

She said she supports efforts to preserve the house and so does her sister, Camay Calloway Murphy. (Another sister in Santa Fe, Cabella, doesn’t support preservation, and her other two sisters have passed away.)

“Many of the reasons why this is not moving forward is because people are under the impression that the whole Calloway family is against” saving the house, Cecelia Calloway told the panel. “That is not true.”

Cecilia Calloway says it is not true that her family does not support the renovation of her father's childhood home. (Ed Gunts)

Cecelia Calloway tells CHAP that it’s not true that her family does not support saving her father’s childhood home. (Ed Gunts)

Role in Freedom Struggle

The new information was presented just as the housing department was finalizing plans to tear down the Calloway and other houses in the 2200 block of Druid Hill Avenue to make way for a proposed park.

City officials said the demolition work, originally to be completed by the end of this month, is now scheduled to begin in early 2020.

“We’re probably 30 to 60 days away from [housing] receiving all the approvals to start demolition,” Holcomb said on Tuesday.

Advocates for preservation are led by Peter Brooks, a grandson of Cab Calloway. They argue that Cab and Blanche Calloway were key figures in the arts and literature movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, and their childhood house should be preserved as a place that people can visit to learn about them.

Blanche Calloway's pioneering role as a female musician – and bravery in the face of racism in the South – is celebrated on the building to be demolished. (Mark Reutter)

Blanche Calloway’s pioneering role as a female musician – as well as her bravery in the face of Southern racism – is celebrated by flyers placed on the Calloway house by supporters of its preservation. (Mark Reutter)

Holcomb said that author Halpin, in a letter to CHAP, talked about why Reed’s history in the house is another reason to save the structure.

The professor noted that the Brotherhood of Liberty, started in the 1880s, was a pioneer in fighting Jim Crow segregation and demonstrating that a non-partisan organization could use civil disobedience and the courts to challenge discriminatory laws.

Saving the Calloway house “can offer the city a way to recognize its foundational importance in the long black freedom struggle while also honoring the immense cultural contributions made by Cab and Blanche Calloway.”  – Dennis Patrick Halpin.

“In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, black Baltimoreans living in northwest Baltimore played a singular role in launching the modern civil rights movement,” Halpin wrote.

“The rowhouse at 2216 Druid Hill Avenue, in my opinion, can offer the city a way to recognize its foundational importance in the long black freedom struggle while also honoring the immense cultural contributions made by Cab and Blanche Calloway,” Halpin argued. “I am writing to strongly urge Baltimore and Maryland to forestall demolition.”

No Response Yet

The idea of asking Baltimore’s housing commissioner for a 90-day deferral of the pending demolition came from CHAP chairman Tom Liebel.

All but one of the nine panelists said they support the idea of asking for a delay in demolition. The lone commissioner who said she couldn’t support the request was Kate Edwards, the housing department’s representative on CHAP.

The Department of Housing and Community Department recently posted this ominous sign on the boarded-up entrance to the Calloway house. (Mark Reutter)

The Department of Housing and Community Development recently posted this ominous sign on the boarded-up entrance to the Calloway house. (Mark Reutter)

Edwards said the department has been working for several years to determine what to do with the Druid Hill Avenue houses and has opted to move ahead with the demolition plan, which is supported by the Druid Heights Community Development Corp.

CHAP discussed the Calloway house demolition during a briefing session before its official monthly meeting, a time when panel members often talk about time-sensitive preservation issues.

The house wasn’t listed on CHAP’s agenda as a subject for discussion, and no one from the Druid Heights CDC, which has adamantly opposed saving the house, was present to testify.

Housing department spokesperson Tammy Hawley said Braverman is aware of the discussion and is waiting receipt of a formal letter from CHAP to exactly determine what it is requesting.

“CHAP has the authority to postpone issuance of a permit, so we will have to see if they are exercising that authority. Obviously we would follow the law,” she said.

The housing department’s position “has been to defer to the community plans and wishes, which were created with heavy involvement of the Department of Planning,” Hawley said. “Our existing plans for demolition grew out of those plans.”

Cab Calloway greets fans in Baltimore in the 1970s. (Courtesy of Peter Brooks)

Cab Calloway greets fans in Baltimore in the 1970s. The famous jazz singer, dancer and bandleader died in 1994. (Courtesy of Peter Brooks)

“To Motivate and Inspire”

At the briefing session, Holcomb and Liebel agreed to allow preservation advocates to address the panel.

Reba Hawkins, a Republican candidate for the 7th District seat held by the late Elijah Cummings, said a restored Calloway house would be an icon of civic pride and revitalization.

“Cab Calloway’s footprint in the world of arts and entertainment is incalculable and great, and the ability of his story to motivate and inspire is greater,” she said.

“Baltimore needs to be as proud of its Cab Calloway of the past as of its Ravens of today.”

Dr. Randy Short, a minister with the African Orthodox Church, agreed.

“When we have a president who trashes this city and its people, we need to define it by putting up memorials that we are not only great, but we have been great a long time,” he said. “A Cab Calloway [house] comes once in a millennium. It’s irreplaceable.”

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