The Baltimore Experience African American Heritage Attractions & Historic Places
From its founding in 1729, people of African descent have shaped the City of Baltimore politically, culturally and economically. African American Baltimoreans stood at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, built lasting civic and religious institutions and made transformative contributions to arts and culture.
Before the Civil War, Baltimore was home to more free blacks than any other American city. While the war brought freedom, it did not bring equality. Life in segregated Baltimore mirrored the injustices across the nation; the African American community established civic organizations, built churches, owned businesses and worked to bring about equality for all.
Below is a guide to significant sites of African American heritage in Baltimore. It is not an exhaustive listing but serves as an inspiration for further exploration.
The city center, nestled around Baltimore’s famed Inner Harbor, has been a place of commerce, residence, and culture for much of the city’s history. Today the city center is dense with museums and attractions that share the story of Baltimore’s African American community.
The Inner Harbor was once filled with wharves and docks, where ships were loaded and unloaded. During the 1700s and early 1800s, slaves were brought to Baltimore through these wharves (and those in nearby Fell’s Point). Businesses associated with the slave trade were also near the Inner Harbor, including slave jails and auction sites.
Physical connections to the ugly past of slavery are long gone; today important institutions serve to remember and commemorate the past. Most notable is the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture at the corner of E. Pratt and President streets in the Jonestown neighborhood.
Most of the sites in this central Baltimore section are steps away from the Inner Harbor’s hotels and restaurants. A few, such as the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum and the Rawlings Conservatory, are farther away but well worth the trip.
Baltimore Civil War Museum
601 President Street | baltimorecivilwarmuseum.com | 443-220-0290
The city’s Civil War museum is located in President Street Station, a historic railroad station and site on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. The station and the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad were key components of the network of secret routes slaves used to escape to free states up north and to Canada. Exhibits explore these connections and how the Civil War impacted Baltimore and its citizens. President Street Station is one of 20 star attractions along Heritage Walk, an urban heritage trail. From April through early November, the Baltimore National Heritage Area offers guided tours along the 3.2-mile walking trail.
Black Soldiers Monument
War Memorial Plaza at Baltimore City Hall | 100 Holliday Street
Standing at nine feet tall, this monument is dedicated to all African American soldiers who fought and died in battle. James E. Lewis—a prominent black artist, Morgan State University art professor, and director of the university’s art gallery—sculpted the bronze statue, which an anonymous donor funded. The statue was originally installed in Battle Monument Plaza on Calvert Street in 1971. It was moved to its current site outside City Hall in 2007. The soldier wears a U.S. Army uniform and holds a wreath. From the wreath is a scroll inscribed with the dates of wars (from the Revolutionary War through the VietnamWar) in which black soldiers fought and died.
Maryland Women’s Heritage Center
39 W. Lexington Street | mdwomensheritagecenter.org | 443-996-1788
The first comprehensive center of its kind in the nation, the Maryland Women’s Heritage Center honors the state’s historical and contemporary women inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame and the unsung heroines who shaped their families and communities.
Prominent African American honorees of the hall of fame include Harriet Tubman, Lillie Carroll Jackson, State Senator Verda Welcome, and poet and author Lucille Clifton, the first African American to serve as Maryland’s poet laureate.
Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory
3100 Swann Drive (In Druid Hill Park) | rawlingsconservatory.org | 410-396-0008
In 1888, city leaders opened the elegant botanical conservatory on the grounds of Druid Hill Park. The conservatory has grown from the original Palm House and Orchid Room to include three greenhouses, display pavilions, and outdoor gardens. Originally known as the Baltimore Conservatory, it was renamed after a major restoration in honor of Howard Peters Rawlings, a long-serving state delegate who represented central Baltimore and served as the chair of the Appropriations Committee.
McKim Free School
1120 E. Baltimore Street | mckimcenter.org | 410-276-5519
The school was built in 1833 to educate all poor children, regardless of gender or race. It was funded through an annual bequest made by the estate of John McKim, a wealthy Quaker merchant who died in 1819. The school was built in the Greek Revival style. It is considered one of the most accurate buildings of this type in the United States. Although the free school closed in 1945, the building still serves the community today with educational and recreational programs as the McKim Community Center.
Read’s Drug Store
Intersection of N. Howard and W. Lexington Streets
One of Baltimore’s least well-known but most important stories involves the history of the former Read’s Drug Store and its role in Baltimore’s civil rights movement. Built in 1934, this Art Deco structure served as the flagship store for the Read’s chain. Like many downtown businesses in the 1950s, the store maintained a strict policy of racial segregation at its lunch counters. In 1955, a group of Morgan State College students organized a successful sit-in protest at the store’s lunch counter. The group’s success provided a powerful model for the more famous lunch-counter sit-in of Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960. Although the famous lunch counter is now gone, the building’s façades still retain the original Art Deco styling.
This site summary is courtesy of Baltimore Heritage, Inc., a non-profit organization that works to save historic buildings and neighborhoods through outreach, advocacy, and technical assistance. Visit baltimoreheritage.org for more information about Read’s Drug Store.
National Great Blacks in Wax Museum
1601 E. North Avenue | greatblacksinwax.org | 410-563-3404
The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum is the nation’s only wax museum dedicated to African Americans. Exhibits with life-size and life-like wax figures explore the immense diversity of the African American experience, from the horrors of captivity to those who fought for liberty and human rights. Figures bring to life the stories of famous individuals, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Harriet Tubman, as well as less well-known heroes, including Arctic explorer Matthew Henson and educator Mary McLeod Bethune. The museum features a wax figure of Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Born a slave, she escaped to freedom in 1826. Truth was the first black woman honored with a bust in the U.S. Capitol.
Star-Spangled Banner Flag House
844 E. Pratt Street | flaghouse.org | 410-837-1793
The Flag House was the home of Mary Young Pickersgill, a seamstress and flagmaker commissioned to sew the giant American flag that flew over Fort McHenry and inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The flag was extremely large, and many people would have been necessary to sew the flag. Grace Wisher, a 13-year-old, indentured African American girl, was at the side of Mary and her three nieces to help craft the flag. Very little is known about Grace, but her contribution to a great American icon is now remembered and celebrated at the Flag House and its museum.
Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture
830 E. Pratt Street | rflewismuseum.org | 443-263-1800
The museum, which opened in 2005, features permanent and special exhibitions on the traditions, culture, and experiences of African Americans in Maryland and Baltimore. The museum collects, preserves, and interprets the historic, artistic, and cultural contributions of African Americans in Maryland. Exhibits explore the bonds of family and community, slavery’s hold on the state, and how art and education were used to endure and even overcome oppression.
The museum is named in honor of Reginald Lewis, a native of Baltimore and successful corporate attorney, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. His company, TLC Beatrice, was the first black-owned company to gross $1 billion in sales.
Eubie Blake National Jazz and Cultural Center
847 N. Howard Street | eubieblake.org | 410-225-3130
The Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center promotes the unique history and continuing legacy of African American art and culture in Baltimore. Named in honor of one of Baltimore’s great jazz artists, the center offers a range of music and dance classes, art exhibitions, and permanent displays celebrating Blake and other prominent Baltimore jazz artists, including Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday.
Sharp-Leadenhall is located between M&T Bank Stadium and Federal Hill. It is bounded by I-395 to the west, Hanover Street to the east, W. Ostend Street to the south, and W. Hamburg Street to the north.
Established by former slaves and German immigrants in approximately 1790, the historic South Baltimore neighborhood of Sharp-Leadenhall is rich with 225 years of African American culture. Once anchored by large churches and thriving businesses, the community was home to the Baltimore Abolitionist Society. The society was founded in 1789 and was the first of its kind in the south and the third in the nation. Society members created the African Academy of Baltimore in 1797, which was the first school in the nation built for the purpose of educating African American children.
Religious institutions connected to Sharp-Leadenhall include: Ebenezer AME Church, the city’s oldest standing church (erected in 1865 by African Americans); the original location of Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church, founded in 1787 as the first black Methodist congregation in Baltimore; and Leadenhall Baptist Church, established in 1872 and the second-oldest church edifice in Baltimore continuously occupied by the same African American congregation.
As a result of eminent domain and gentrification, portions of Sharp-Leadenhall suffered under the plight of urban renewal. However, the area still maintains its significance as a neighborhood that served as a hub of African American culture for generations.
The Upton, Marble Hill, and Bolton Hill neighborhoods together form a National Register Historic District known as Old West Baltimore—the city’s premier early African American neighborhood. Beginning in the 1890s, African Americans began living in homes in the neighborhoods. In this community, African Americans gained political power, established social and religious institutions, and started businesses.
The churches served to not only guide spiritual life but to spearhead social progress. Many were deeply associated with civil rights movements throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1900, more than 12 African American churches resided in Old West Baltimore. They helped create almost every important civic institution in the community, including Morgan State University, the YMCA and YWCA, and the Baltimore Branch of the NAACP.
West Baltimore was also home to The Afro-American Newspapers, which since its founding in 1892 gave voice to the Civil Rights Movement. Founded by John H. Murphy, Sr., a former slave, the paper evolved from his church’s publication. By 1922, it was the most widely circulated black newspaper along the East Coast. Under the 24-year leadership of John’s son Carl Murphy, The Afro-American Newspapers rose to national prominence, reaching a peak weekly circulation of 235,000 in 1945.The Afro-American Newspapers advocated for the hiring of African Americans by Baltimore’s police and fire departments, black representation in the legislature, and the establishment of a state-supported African American university. The paper also campaigned against the Southern Railroad’s use of Jim Crow cars and fought to obtain equal pay for Maryland’s black schoolteachers. Today The Afro-American Newspapers publishes Baltimore and Washington, DC editions and remains the nation’s second-longest-running African American, family-owned newspaper.
For a more in-depth look at the churches, institutions, and talented individuals who called West Baltimore home, take advantage of a leisurely stroll along the Pennsylvania Avenue Heritage Trail. The two-mile urban heritage trail explores the community, civil rights legacy, and famous residents of Baltimore’s premier historic African American neighborhood. Major attractions along the trail include historic churches (Union Baptist, Sharp Street Memorial, Bethel AME, Douglas Memorial, and Saint Peter Claver); the home (and future museum) of civil rights leader Lillie Carroll Jackson; and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s elementary school. Colorful storyboard panels help guide visitors and provide some background on the amazing people that lived and worked in the neighborhood.
Arch Social Club
2426 Pennsylvania Avenue | http://archsocialclub.com | 410-669-9856
The Arch Social Club is the oldest continuously operating private club for African American men in Maryland. During the early 1900s, African Americans’ social activities were restricted and access to insurance was difficult. To counter these racist practices, the Arch Social Club incorporated in 1912 “for the social, moral and intellectual uplift of its members and in order that charity may be practiced in a Christian-like spirit…” Club members visited the sick, attended funerals and supported widows, orphans and local charities. Benefits were paid to members during sickness and at time of death.
Formerly located in downtown Baltimore, the club moved to its present site in 1972. The 1912 building originally housed a Jewish theater and dance hall, and later a segregated restaurant that served African Americans on a carry out basis only. The club’s diverse membership welcomed waiters, chauffeurs, laborers, entrepreneurs and attorneys. The club drew widespread participation from Virginia, New Jersey, the District of Columbia, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. John Kier, formerly of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, led the club’s band. Numerous internationally known musicians have performed at the Arch Social Club, including Charles Earland, Jimmy McGriff, Irene Reid, Jeanette “Baby” Washington, The Orioles, The Drifters, and Joey DeFrancesco.
The Arena Players
801 McCulloh Street | arenaplayersinc.com | 410-728-6500
The Arena Players is the oldest continuously running African American community theatre in the United States. Arena Players was founded in 1953 by Samuel Wilson with the assistance of June Thorn, the first black woman to host a local Baltimore television show, and George Barrett, an arts educator. The Arena Players’ first home was Coppin State College, later moving to the Druid Heights YMCA. Wilson raised $500,000 to renovate the building into a true theatre space with dressing rooms, classrooms, and performance studios. Actors Howard Rollins (A Soldiers Story), Charles Dutton (Roc, The Corner) and Damon Evans (The Jeffersons) can trace their early years to Arena Players.
Billie Holiday Plaza
Corner of W. Lafayette and Pennsylvania Avenues
Billie Holiday revolutionized jazz singing with her relaxed approach, rhythm, and use of blues techniques. Born in Philadelphia in 1915 as Eleanora Fagan, her mother, Sadie Harris, returned to Baltimore with her infant daughter soon after her birth. Holiday’s singing career began in earnest in Harlem nightclubs in 1933. From 1933 through 1958, Holiday recorded and performed with many jazz greats, including Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and saxophonist Lester Young. Holiday gave Young the nickname “Prez”; he in turn have her the nickname “Lady Day.”
Baltimore sculptor James Earl Reid created the tall bronze statue that stands in her honor at the corner of W. Lafayette and Pennsylvania avenues. Panels at the base have references to the Jim Crow era and the horrors of lynching. Holiday is often remembered for her haunting rendition of “Strange Fruit,” a song written denouncing lynching in the American south. In 1999, Time magazine proclaimed “Strange Fruit” the song of the 20th century.
Royal Theater Marquee Monument
Corner of W. Lafayette and Pennsylvania Avenues
The Royal Theater once stood proudly on Pennsylvania Avenue, a grand venue showcasing the finest of African American entertainers. The biggest stars in black entertainment performed at the Royal, including Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Redd Foxx, Billie Holiday, and Pearl Bailey.
The theater was built in 1921 as the Douglass Theater, and it was renamed the Royal in 1936. With seating for more than 1,000, it was Pennsylvania Avenue’s most prestigious venue. By the late 1960s, the theater fell into disrepair. It was demolished in 1971. A monument celebrating the Royal and the memories of the great performances on its stage was erected in 2004.
Lillie Carroll Jackson House
1320 Eutaw Place
Lillie Carroll Jackson lived in this beautiful home in Bolton Hill and welcomed prominent civil rights and political leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Regarded as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” Jackson is credited with helping implement the non-violent tactics used during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
Jackson was an organizer for the Baltimore Branch of the NAACP and served as its president from 1935 to 1970. She helped increase membership to more than 17,000 and raised money for both the local branch and national organization. She led the cause for black enrollment into the University of Maryland Law School and helped desegregate Baltimore’s public schools.
Morgan State University is working to transform the house into a museum that will feature films and interactive exhibits to share the story of this remarkable woman.
PS103: Henry Highland Garnet School (Thurgood Marshall’s Elementary School)
1315 Division Street
Built in 1877, the Henry Highland Garnet School (Public School No. 103) was the elementary school attended by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall from 1914 to 1920—his first six years of segregated public school education. It was in the segregated schools of Baltimore that Marshall memorized the U.S. Constitution and first learned and understood the principles of equal protection under the law.
The school was named in honor of Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882), a famous abolitionist and orator. Garnet was born a slave in Kent County, Maryland; his family escaped to freedom on the Underground Railroad. He became a minister and well-known abolitionist speaker. Today the Baltimore National Heritage Area and the city are working to preserve the school and use it to interpret the Civil Rights Movement and the life and legacy of Thurgood Marshall.
Historic Saint Mary’s Chapel
600 N. Paca Street | stmarysspiritualcenter.org | 410-728-6464
In 1791, at the invitation of Bishop John Carroll—the first American bishop—Sulpician priests came to Baltimore from France to create the nation’s first Catholic seminary. The crypt (basement) of the seminary’s chapel served as a parish church for area residents, including many Haitian refugees.
The seminary site is closely associated with Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American saint, who took her vows in the chapel in 1809. The Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious community of African American women in the country, provided parochial education to black children in the chapel’s basement.
Mount Clare Museum House
1500 Washington Boulevard (Inside Carroll Park) | mountclare.org | 410-837-3262
The Mount Clare Museum House is a grand mansion built in the 1760s and was once the center of a bustling 800-acre farm and industrial complex. The mansion, built by Charles Carroll (the Barrister), is the oldest example of grand Georgian architecture in the city. Although well within the city limits today, the mansion still shares the stories of the Carroll family, its plantation, and the enslaved laborers who tended its fields and worked in its iron works.
The mansion served as the country home for Charles Carroll, a politically active lawyer (barrister), who helped write the Maryland State Constitution. The mansion was part of an active plantation known as the Georgia Plantation. The Carroll family owned slaves and was one of the few in Maryland with more than 100 enslaved persons. The primary crops were grain and labor-intensive tobacco. Enslaved workers not only tended to domestic work and toiled the fields but they also worked at Carroll’s Baltimore Iron Works, which was located on the plantation grounds.
The house left the Carroll family hands in 1840. During the Civil War, Union troops used the mansion as quarters. In 1890, the city purchased the house and 70 surrounding acres to create Carroll Park. The mansion was restored by the National Society of Colonial Dames in Maryland, which continues to oversee the operation of the mansion as a house museum. The mansion was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970.
Fell’s Point was the point of entry and often the first home for successive waves of immigrants throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries. Both enslaved and free African Americans were a prominent part of the neighborhood’s population, working as household servants and in many maritime industries. As a result of this immigration and maritime heritage, Fell’s Point became an ethnically diverse, working-class neighborhood made up of artisans, sailors, and craftsmen.
Frederick Douglass credited his time in Baltimore, when he lived and worked in Fell’s Point, providing him with the educational and moral strength to progress from an illiterate slave to a teacher of others. Douglass’ legacy in Fell’s Point can be seen in the 500 block of South Dallas Street. In 1891, he purchased the abandoned Strawberry Alley Church, razed the building, and constructed five rowhouses to provide affordable housing for African Americans.
Fell’s Point also has a connection to Billie “Lady Day” Holiday. Her teenaged mother Sadie raised her in East Baltimore, mostly in and around Fell’s Point. Sometime in 1926, they moved into a two-story house at 217 South Durham Street. At age ten, she began singing in theaters, whiskey houses, and storefront churches throughout the “Point.” The family also lived for a short time at 219 South Durham before moving to New York in 1929.
History runs throughout the cobblestone streets of Fell’s Point. Founded in 1726 by William Fell, a shipbuilder from England, Fell’s Point served as the city’s deep-water port for over a century. Visitors to this area can start their journey at the Fell’s Point Visitor Center, run by the Fell’s Point Preservation Society. The center has exhibits on the neighborhood’s diverse history and offers walking tours that explore the African American experience in Fell’s Point.
For a closer look at Fell’s Point’s history, its people, and its places, follow along the path of the Historic Fell’s Point Trail. The urban heritage trail winds along waterfront promenades and narrow streets, exploring maritime history, the defense of Baltimore during the War of 1812, and the people who made the deep-water shipbuilding center their home. Visit explorebaltimore.org for more information about the trail.
Fell’s Point Visitor Center
1724-26 Thames St. | preservationsociety.com | 410-675-6751
Visitors to this area can start their journey at the Fell’s Point Visitor Center, run by the Fell’s Point Preservation Society. The center has exhibits on the neighborhood’s diverse history and offers walking tours that explore the African American experience in Fell’s Point.
Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park
1417 Thames Street | douglassmyers.org | 410-685-0295
This museum and maritime park is a heritage site that celebrates the African Americans who worked in Baltimore’s maritime trades in the 1800s and 1900s. It tells the stories of Frederick Douglass and Isaac Myers, who both worked as caulkers in the Fell’s Point shipyards and gained fame later in life as prominent leaders and reformers. In telling their stories, the park also reveals an African American community that came together and carved out institutions and businesses.
The museum, operated by the Living Classrooms Foundation, houses a working re-creation of the first black-owned marine railway and shipyard in the United States. Isaac Myers and 14 black entrepreneurs founded the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company in the 1860s. The company, located just west of the museum, employed both blacks and whites without discrimination.
In 1826 at age eight, enslaved Frederick Douglass arrived in Baltimore. His owner on Maryland’s Eastern Shore sent the young Douglass to care for Hugh and Sophia Auld’s young son, Tommy. After initial reading lessons from Sophia, Frederick continued to teach himself and later taught other African Americans to read at the Strawberry Alley Sunday School. In the Baltimore shipyards, he worked as a caulker, where free and enslaved African Americans dominated the caulking trade. On September 3, 1838, Frederick jumped aboard a train to New York, purchasing his ticket onboard and managing to safely escape to freedom. Douglass later became a renowned abolitionist and orator. In his 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Douglass recounts his life in slavery in Maryland.
Mount Auburn Cemetery
2630 Waterview Avenue | sharpstreet.org/mtauburn.html
Mount Auburn Cemetery is the oldest owned and operated African American cemetery in Baltimore City. Due to segregation, blacks were prohibited from being buried in white cemeteries; Mount Auburn represented the only location African Americans could be laid to rest with dignity.
Founded in 1868 as a black burial ground, the deed was signed in 1872 by Reverend James Peck and the trustees of the first African American Methodist church in Baltimore: Sharp Street Methodist Episcopal Church. The cemetery was officially dedicated as the “City of the Dead for Colored People.” In 1884, the name was changed to Mount Auburn Cemetery.
It is approximated that 55,000 people have been interred in the cemetery. Notable burials at the cemetery include Joseph Gans, the first African American boxing champion; John H. Murphy, Sr., founder of The Afro-American Newspapers; and civil rights pioneer Lillie Carroll Jackson. The cemetery was designated a Baltimore City Landmark in 1986 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.