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Mayoral panel wants frieze to honor historic 1955 Read’s sit-in

Classy wall sculptures in New York and Washington are examples of what the memorial could be like.

Above: The frieze atop the National Building Museum in Washington was cited as a model for the Read’s commemoration.

Installing a frieze, a long sculptural horizontal band, on the exterior wall of Read’s Drug Store is the choice of a committee created by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to honor a student sit-in that is considered a landmark event in the civil rights movement.

The commemoration, to be part of the “Superblock” retail-residential development at Howard and Lexington streets, has been a closely guarded secret since the committee submitted its report to the mayor three months ago.

In choosing a bas-relief wall sculpture to depict the January 1955 protest by Morgan State students and others that ended “white-only” lunchrooms at the drug store chain, the committee went beyond a simple plaque on the building, but not as far as installing an interactive educational exhibit, as suggested by the Downtown Partnership and other groups.

The commemoration has been a source of intense interest. Preservationists and civil rights advocates first battled the developer who wanted to tear down the Read’s building, then watched uneasily as the developer agreed to preserve the exterior walls of the structure under a deal brokered by the mayor.

Under political pressure from the black community to recognize the 1955 sit-in, Rawlings-Blake appointed Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway, pastor of Union Baptist Church, to chair the Read’s Drugstore Commemoration Design Committee.

The 15-member committee met several times in November, held a public meeting and submitted its report to the mayor on December 12.

PIA Request for Report

The Brew asked for the committee’s unreleased report and other material under Maryland’s Public Information Act.

More than 50 pages of material were released, portions of it blacked out, or redacted, by the City Solicitor’s Office on grounds that the mayor has not yet announced her plans for Read’s.

The released material shows that the committee and the mayor’s chief advisor, Brian Greenan, proposed a frieze similar to a memorial to firefighters who lost their lives on 9/11 in New York. The bronze bas-relief sculpture (56-feet-long by 6-feet-high) was installed at Ladder Co. 10 at the south border of the World Trade Center site.

Greenan also pointed to the frieze that wraps around the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., which narrates the story of Civil War soldiers in scenes reminiscent of the “horsemen’s frieze” originally on the Parthenon.

“I showed the Mayor an image of it when I briefed her,” Greenan wrote in an e-mail. “If money were no object, something like this would be great.”

Greenan sought out the price for the firefighters frieze in New York ($530,000 contributed by a New York law firm).

If there were discussions on how on to fund the proposed Read’s frieze, that material was redacted.

The Downtown Partnership has offered to donate $100,000 for the commemoration. The Superblock developers, Lexington Square Partners and Dawson Co., have also offered to contribute. There has also been talk of soliciting Morgan State University alumni.

This bronze wall memorial at Ladder Company 10 in New York, for firefighters killed on 9/11, is another example of a frieze proposed to Mayor Rawlings-Blake. (Photo from Reuters)

Many Other Ideas Proposed

In its report to the mayor, the committee noted that it had received several dozen ideas. They ranged from a life-size replica of the lunch counter where a half-dozen Morgan State students staged the sit-in to photographic and interactive displays with oral histories playing.

Other ideas included turning the building into a non-profit educational and training center, developing a Civil Rights Trail with Read’s as the nucleus, and designating the site as a federal park and monument.

When informed of the committee’s recommendation, Helena Hicks, who participated in the 1955 sit-in, said in an interview, “A frieze might do it. At least it could be seen. I certainly don’t want another statue, like the Billie Holiday statue, that sits neglected in a vacant lot.”

Hicks has been pushing for a memorial for a number of years and has mostly felt thwarted by “our politicians’ indifference” to local African-American history.

She said yesterday, “I’m glad to hear that this may be moving forward. It is an embarrassment to the city to have such little history about the civil rights era when Baltimore produced so many civil rights leaders beginning with Thurgood Marshall and so many significant contributions to the movement.”

A black teamster is depicted in the Civil War frieze in Washington. The frieze was sculpted by Caspar Buberi in 1887. (Photo by Einar Einarsson Kvaran)

A black teamster is depicted in the Civil War frieze in Washington. The frieze was sculpted by Caspar Buberi in 1887. (Photo by Einar Einarsson Kvaran)

Ground Rules

In laying out her charge last November, Mayor Rawlings-Black told the commemoration committee that said she “wanted a process that was as independent as possible from both City Hall and the Superblock development team,” according to the report written by Rev. Hathaway, Michelle Harris Bondima and Rev. S. Todd Yeary.

But a number of ground rules were placed on the committee’s work by the development team, according to Greenan, the mayor’s project coordinator for the Westside.

“Some of the Design Committee members may expect the final product to be installed inside Read’s; the Dawson Company does not want to dedicate tenant square footage for this; they want the installation to be outside the building,” Greenan noted in a briefing memorandum.

“Some of the Committee members have asked if the process will result in a museum or a design similar to what was achieved to honor the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins. The Dawson Company does not share that vision,” he continued.

And finally: “The Downtown Partnership has been quoted as saying they envision a high-quality, interactive experience for the Read’s Drugstore sit-in. The Dawson Company does not appear to share that vision.”

In a February 8 e-mail, an officer at the Baltimore Development Corp. (BDC) tells Greenan that the developer will be closely involved in deciding where to locate the frieze: “I just e-mailed Bailey [Bailey Pope, senior vice president of design] so that we can think about the Commemoration location. Stay tuned.”

Under the current schedule, the city and developers have until April 30 to agree to terms for the sale of the now-vacant Superblock parcel bounded by Howard, Lexington and Fayette streets and Park Avenue.

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