There were sharp recollections of the “stink” of “genteel segregation” in 1950s Baltimore at a meeting Saturday to get public input on how to commemorate a 1955 sit-down civil rights protest at the downtown Read’s Drug Store.
But details were hazy on much more recent history: namely, why the commemoration panel failed to spread the word about its existence.
Hazier still was the current status of the proposed $150-million “Superblock” development by Lexington Square Partners, which lies at the center of the current controversy.
Last winter the city-backed mixed-use project had threatened the original Read’s building with demolition – and sparked a furious city-wide debate.
Yet only three people showed up at the forum yesterday, and one of them chided “The Mayor’s Committee for the Commemoration of the Read’s Sit-In” for not giving interested parties advance notice about the event.
“How was the public supposed to know this was happening?” said Gwendolyn Wynn, an NAACP member, speaking amid a sea of empty chairs in a meeting room at Union Baptist Church.
Wynn said that “nobody I know has known anything about it” and later blamed the lack of notice for “the little, lame discussion” the group mustered about how to pay tribute to the protest, in which students from Morgan State College and others, after being arrested and jailed, succeeded in opening up all the Read’s lunch counters to blacks.
Wynn said that she and others only heard about the forum via an email that came two days before the scheduled meeting. Preservationists who have been working for years to save historic Westside buildings from demolition, including Read’s, said they only heard about it by word of mouth, on Friday, the day before.
“Having [the meeting] on the Saturday before Thanksgiving? That hurt them too,” Wynn said, in a phone interview with The Brew.
Circulated “to our Networks”
Dr. Michelle Harris Bondima, designated as the committee’s facilitator, said members informed others about the forum by circulating notice “to our networks” via the gmail address created to take public comment on the matter. (That’s email@example.com. The committee is accepting ideas through Dec. 3, and plans to finalize its recommendations to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at a meeting at noon on Dec. 5 at Union Baptist Church.)
Asked earlier by phone about the complaints about lack of notice, Bondima referred a reporter to Brian Greenan, the Mayor’s Westside Coordinator.
But Greenan, who sat with the committee yesterday as an ex-officio member, and Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) chief M.J. “Jay” Brodie, also present as an ex-officio member, declined to speak to reporters.
Asked to discuss the committee’s work and the status of the development proposal, Greenan said, “I can’t really talk to you about it. It’s alive. It’s ongoing.” He added, “I’m sorry to be so cagey about it.”
December 31 Developer Deadline
In 2006, New York-based Lexington Square Partners signed a land disposition agreement with the city to buy about 20 city-owned buildings on Superblock and construct a mixed-use project. Dawson Co. of Atlanta was later added.
But partly due to lawsuits challenging various preservation issues, the land has not been sold and the project has made no discernible headway.
The city Board of Estimates has twice extended the deadline for the developers to reach an agreement with the city. The latest extension ends Dec. 31, 2011.
Figuring out how to commemorate the sit-in was “on the punch list of things we had to knock out” for the project to proceed, Greenan said.
Asked what he’s done since taking the $90,000-a-year city job five months ago, he said, “I do what coordinators do. I’m like the glue, coordinating the activities of the developers, city officials, the public, the city agencies, the state agencies.”
Bondima and other members of the committee said they were unable to discuss a possible budget for the commemoration project or who would make a final decision about it, but were solely focused on seeking public input.
“Every suggestion we receive will be documented and presented to the mayor,” she said. “After that it’s out of our hands.”
A Visitor’s Center?
It was left to the chairman, Rev. Al Hathaway, to do most of the talking for the committee.
Hathaway has been a vocal supporter of the Superblock project, along with Rev. S. Todd Yeary, committee secretary and pastor of Douglas Memorial Church that the Rawlings-Blake family attends.
Hathaway read aloud from the few emailed comments received so far about commemorating the Read’s sit-in. One was an email from Steve Ziger of the city’s Public Art Commission, whose suggestions included holding a public competition to solicit designs for memorials.
He also read the suggestions from Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham Sr., sent on Friday along with a rebuke about the late notice of the meeting, which he said he could not attend because of prior conflicts.
Among Cheatham’s ideas: a visitor’s center with a gift store, educational programs to explain Baltimore’s role in civil rights history, large historical markers on the outside walls of the Read’s building, audio by people who participated in the sit-in, plaques naming them.
Another email Hathaway read was from Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland, who still remains concerned about the Read’s building itself.
Gearhart wrote that the city’s compromise proposal to preserve two exterior walls of the building “does not conform” to a 2001 Memorandum of Understanding about preservation worked out between between the city and the Maryland Historical Trust.
Mayor Rawlings-Blake, the BDC and the Downtown Partnership (which pledged to donate $100,000 toward a commemoration project) have supported the Lexington Square project, saying the retail and residential complex would bring jobs for city residents and lift up the dilapidated westside.
Critics have argued that plan, which would welcome retailers like Bed, Bath and Beyond, would harm the historic nature of the area and pushed for a different strategy to revive the area. A report by the Urban Land Institute commissioned by the mayor also has called for a preservation-based renewal strategy.
Among the members originally included on an emailed list of the members of Read’s commemoration committee were Bailey Pope and John Majors, representatives of project co-developers Dawson Co.
(Committee secretary Yeary corrected that list in a subsequent email, to say that Pope and Majors were inadvertently included “and are NOT members.”)
“Simple and Symbolic”
Walter Dean, a retired college professor and former member of the Maryland House of Delegates, came with some very specific suggestions on commemorating the 1955 protest.
“There should be a simple sign, 5 by 4½ feet, that says, ‘This was where the movement started,’ ” Dean said. Along with the plaque, he suggested a bas relief sculpture be made based on one of the photos of the event shot by I. Henry Phillips, the legendary Afro-American newspaper photographer.
“Anything more than that and the city will not be able to fund it,” Dean said. He advised against creating a museum or center with staff and videos that would depend on continued support to be properly maintained. He said he also opposes the idea of lists of the names of participants in the original action.
“The issue is one of symbolism,” he said. “It’s not Walter Dean or Helena Hicks. It should be a symbol of liberty and freedom and fighting segregation.”
Dean should know – he was the first Morgan student to be arrested at Northwood Shopping Center, near the college, where the businesses that excluded blacks included a Read’s store.
“I was Ticked”
Prompted by Hathaway to recall those times, Dean described what it was like returning to the U.S. after military service in the more tolerant milieu of Europe.
“When I came back, the first thing I could smell was the stink in the air of racism,” Dean said. “I was ticked off that I couldn’t eat where I wanted to eat.”
Dean softened his remarks (“I wasn’t militant, I was ticked”), but it’s clear that the experience left a lasting sting. “The establishment did not approve of the sit-in,” he said, mentioning an award he received for his participation that he tore up, thinking to himself, “ ‘Y’all are late to the table.’ ”
But Dean embraced the idea of commemorating the sit-in, saying, “We need these permanent fixtures that have to be here forever.”
–Mark Reutter contributed to this story.