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Destruction of Alleged Baltimore Civil Rights Landmark Draws Criticism

Civil Rights Landmark Demolition

Baltimore activists are protesting the destruction of one of the city’s civil rights landmarks.

On Nov. 12, a group of concerned citizens held a protest at 1234 Druid Hill Ave., a now-empty lot where “FreedomHouse,” a building with strong ties to the city’s civil rights movement, once stood. The row house, owned by Bethel AME Church, was torn down last week despite the pleas of neighborhood activists, who asked city officials to review the project’s permit and preserve the site.

“This is a travesty,” said Johns W. Hopkins, director of Baltimore Heritage, a non-profit historic preservation group. “This is an enormous loss. It was not just a hub but the hub for civil rights in Baltimore City.”

According to Louis Fields, president of the Baltimore African American Tourism Council, Freedom House had a storied history. The row house was the home of Harry Sythe Cummings and his family from 1899 to 1911. In 1889, Cummings became one of the first two Black men to graduate from the University of Maryland Law School. The following year, he became the first African American elected to the Baltimore City Council.

1234 Druid Hill Ave. was also home to Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the first Black woman to pass the bar in Maryland. In 1970, it became the first headquarters of the Baltimore NAACP under the leadership of Dr. Lillie M. Jackson. In 1976, the Association for Study of Afro-American Life and History erected a marker honouring Dr. Jackson on the wall of the building.

Civil Rights Landmark Demolition

Many civil rights campaigns were birthed in those offices, advocates said.

“When we were planning protests as Morgan students for Read’s and many other civil rights activities, this is where we came. We didn’t have anywhere else to go,” said Dr. Helena Hicks. Hicks was among the Morgan State University students who staged sit-ins at Read’s drugstores throughout the city in January 1955, resulting in the desegregation of its 37 Baltimore-area lunch counters. “You’re talking almost a hundred years of history that we are letting go down the tubes.”

Hicks also had harsh words for Bethel AME’s pastor Rev. Frank Reid.

“This guy—I call him ‘Mr. Reid’ because I don’t give people titles they don’t deserve,” Hicks said. “A reverend doesn’t do things like this. A reverend is supposed to be a man of God who works for his people.”

Calls to Bethel AME seeking comment were not returned. However, it appears that as owner of the property, the church was within its right to demolish the building once it had received approval from the Baltimore City Planning Department.

“Slavery was legal. Jim Crow was legal. Racism was legal. Didn’t make them right,” Fields said. “Tearing down this building may be legal because of who owns it, but [that] doesn’t make it right.”

Hopkins said the destruction of this important landmark is part of an ongoing struggle to preserve historic civil rights markers.

“When people don’t know the history of a building it’s difficult to raise support to save it,” Hopkins said.

Fields added that there should be a better process in place—beyond posting a notice on the building—to allow for public input before buildings are torn down.

“I think the issue is whether or not you have informed the community associations in the area, whether or not you have talked to the people who live in the block and whether or not you have talked to the Baltimore commissions on history,” he said. “Some organizations should have notice prior to the wrecking ball so they can say—as in this case, ‘This house has historical value; slow down on your wrecking ball.’”

The group announced plans to lobby to save another Bethel-owned building at 1232 Druid Hill Ave. The activists said they plan to stage a demonstration in front of Bethel AME Church on Nov. 15 before Sunday morning services. The Marble Hill Neighborhood Association said it would host a meeting at the Druid Hill Avenue YMCA on Nov. 17 to discuss this issue.

James Bentley contributed to this story.