There have been many segregated cities created by white folk thanks to the system of white supremacy. I’ve told the story of “Black Wall Street”, Black Bottom, Harlem and, in fact, the many other such places all over America. But did you know there was a place called Upton in Baltimore, Maryland that hosted one of the most affluent African American neighborhoods in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. For the “Colored folk”, it was known as the “Jewel of the Chesapeake”.
Today, B-more is called “Charm City” which should have been the name given to this splendid community back in the day. Rather, today Baltimore is known for its despair and of course the murder of Freddie Gray who the system say killed himself while in police custody and the unrest that ensued.
In Upton, Pennsylvania Avenue was the main drag connecting all African American life in the city and beyond. To the south and west of Upton lay the poor and working class African American neighborhoods of “The Bottom”; to its east were the German American and Jewish American neighborhoods. Upton is about a fifteen minute walk from Downtown Baltimore, but blacks of that era had no need to go downtown, for obvious reasons. Because of segregation they were not allowed to patronize or enter through the front door of the white establishments unless they were working.
Baltimore is best known for crabs, crab cakes, delicious seafood, and, of course, a good time, but let’s never forget its rich history. Upton was home to the most educated African Americans, property owners, and professionals to include doctors, lawyers, retailers who served the middle class and upscale clientele. On the Avenue, as it was called, was home to a premiere shopping strip for black Baltimoreans, inspiring comparisons to Lenox Avenue in Harlem. Upton had it all jazz clubs, dance halls, theaters, as well as other public and private institutions for the black community.
Upton was also the staging ground for much of the local and national civil rights initiatives. It was a crossroad for many great African Americans who fought for equality and improving conditions for communities suffering from the ridged “separate but equal laws” and cruel amoral agendas. People like the great Frederick Douglass, Justice Thurgood Marshall, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey all visited Upton and organized in its local churches. The Baltimore chapter of the NAACP was based in Upton as well as the New Negro Alliance, who rallied for justice from this proud community.
In the mid-20th century, Upton’s population swelled due to the popularity of the neighborhood and the pressures of segregation that kept African Americans confined to certain areas. Single family homes were subdivided into small apartments, and Pennsylvania Avenue’s sidewalks were crowded on Saturday nights, as loud music and heavy drinking became popular vices on the strip. There were several notable venues hosting great entertainment like the New Albert Hall, the Savoy and the Strands that drew many performers and partygoers.
But it was the Douglass Theater, renamed The Royal Theater, at Pennsylvania and Lafayette, that became famous and a mainstay on the Chitlin Circuit on par with the legendary Apollo Theater. Cab Calloway grew up in Upton and Eubie Blake performed his debut in a club on Pennsylvania Avenue. Stars such as Ethel Water, Pearl Bailey, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, James Brown, Stevie Wonder and the Temptations all performed at the Royal. It was like the Apollo in the sense that you had to play the Royal to get your chops.
Churches were also a huge part of this community providing safe havens for its people. Since the 18th Century, African American churches have nurtured their souls, feed the hungry, clothed and housed the poor but their role was far more important. The church community was a launch pad for activism and served as a communication networks, which was the backbone of the community. The church community fought for civil rights, supported business initiatives, and job placement. From the beginning, going back beyond the Underground Railroad, Baltimore’s churches were a place of empowerment through worship and served as incubators for organizing and planning regardless of denomination or faith.
Baltimore produced prominent businessmen such as Raymond Haysbert, who was the owner and founder of the famed Parks Sausage Company that became the first black-owned company to go public in 1969. The Parks Sausage Company was a legend in Baltimore, and you could hear its slogan “more Parks Sausages mom” everywhere. After the company, experienced financial difficulties two former National Football League Hall of Famers Lydell Mitchell and Franco Harris partnered to come to its rescue maintaining the company’s black-owned legacy. James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul”, was also a prominent businessman in the city owning WEBB, a local radio station, and several other businesses.
Upton also produced its share of colorful characters known as “hustlers” who were legendary. One of the most famous was “Little Willie” Adams. Mr. Adams or “Little Willie”, as he was known, opened a shoeshine stand on the Avenue when he was 18. Sources say he was an ambitious young hustler with dreams of being his own man. One day a flamboyant numbers man got in his chair; he popped his rag like a firecracker while talking jive making him laugh.
He convinced the numbers man that he too was a businessman, solid and dependable, and he wanted in on the numbers game. The hustlers slapped palms, and Little Willie started at the bottom the next day as a runner. By age 34, the young dapper Adams was already a living legend and the King of B-more. Little Willie was known to say, after he became the numbers czar, “This was our thing started by slaves”. I’m told he would say “prayer is good but when you get up off your knees. You’ve got to hustle”.
Then there was the late Melvin Williams, who was the inspiration for the enormously popular HBO series “The Wire.” Known as “Little Melvin”, also featured the documentary “American Gangster” where he told his story, his way. Before he was old enough to shave, Little Melvin possessed a genius I.Q. of 160 but he says it’s closer to 200. Despite being a high school dropout, he can talk tax codes, interstate commerce, calculus, and physics with the best of them. Little Melvin, a legend at age 15 years old had made a few hundred grand in the gambling haunts and alleyways along glittering Pennsylvania Avenue. For three decades, Melvin ruled as the uncrowned king.
Pennsylvania Avenue is now lined with sneaker shops, dollar stores, other low-rent commercial uses, and many abandoned storefronts. The Avenue Market sells produce and holds occasional events such as jazz shows. According to the city, 60% of Upton families with children under 5 are living in poverty. The median home sale price in Upton in 2004 (not including Marble Hill) was $28,054. Many of the row houses in the neighborhood are vacant either abandoned by their property owners or owned by the city.
Yes, the ghost of what was our creation has been stained, and the Jewel of the Chesapeake has lost its luster. Unfortunately, the city of Baltimore, known as Charm City, forgot that Upton was responsible for a large part of its charm but African Americans know it lure looms large, and its legacy will never die. And that’s my thought provoking perspective…