Obtaining Civil Rights in Baltimore
by Harris Chaiklin, Ph.D., University of Maryland School of Social Work
The Hollander family has reprinted “Toward Equality: Baltimore’s Progress Report,” which recounts pioneering events in dismantling barriers to social integration. It covers the period from 1946-1960. There are supplements for 1961 and 1962 which cover the years immediately after legal bars to segregation fell. This presents history as it occurred. It is a powerful picture of what it took to bring progress in civil rights.
The volume is dedicated to the two remarkable men who originally put it together. One was Edgar L. Jones, a long time editor for the Baltimore Sun. He was a WWII conscientious objector but also drove an ambulance for the American Field Service. The other was Jack L. Levin, a public relations executive who had a long career as a champion of peoples’ rights. In a brief introduction added for this reprinting Donna Tyler Hollie reminds us that Baltimore has a long history of leading in the struggle for rights. Quakers and Methodists were active abolitionists. Prior to the Civil War, “Maryland had the largest and most cohesive population of free blacks in the nation.” (p. viii). She notes that in this effort among the outstanding were white Elisha Tyson, Moses Shepherd, and Enoch Pratt and black, William Watkins, Isaac Myers, and John W. Locks.
The material is organized first by year and then integrated into a discussion of key topics. These include education, public recreation, employment, public accommodations, churches, public housing, and private housing. Arraying the material in this way not only conveys an image of how great the effort was but also shows that it took both action by the courts and individuals and groups working on their own.
The Hollander awards went to changes achieved by individuals and groups and not to those involved in court actions. The awards in the first five years reflect how discrimination had to be dug out of every crevice in the social structure. In 1946 the Sunpapers received it for removing racial designations from news headlines and “support of justice for Negroes, the Baltimore Presbytery for electing a Negro as presiding moderator, and to Mr. and Mrs. H. Milton Wagner “for their material and spiritual support of Friends’ House.” In 1947 it went to Dr. William H. Lemmel , superintendent of schools for promoting inter-cultural activities directed by Dr. Harry Bard and for ending segregation in staff activities. In 1948 no award was presented. In 1949 it went to the Baltimore City Medical Society for opening up membership to all. In 1950 Loyola College received it for “integration of substantial numbers of Negroes in both academic and extra-curricular activities.”
The awards all reflect concrete activities and achievements. The same standard was held to throughout the existence of this program. One interesting feature of the listing is that each year the selection jury was different and contained distinguished Baltimore citizens. There was a lot of community participation and leadership in creating racial progress.
While the material will provide useful information to any reader it will produce many echoes in those who were present or knew those who involved in the struggle to gain rights. For example, in 1950 Parren J. Mitchell was the first black admitted to the University of Maryland College Park Campus. He received the MA in sociology in 1952. A little known part of his biography is that he then went to the University of Connecticut to work on a doctorate in sociology. I also went to UConn and taught there the year I wrote my thesis. Parren had completed all his coursework and returned to Baltimore where he was a supervisor in the court system. What we had in common was Jim Barnett the head of the sociology department. When I told him I was coming to Baltimore he told me to look up this interesting fellow named Parren Mitchell. So he was one of the first people I met in Baltimore. Once when he was beginning to get involved in politics I asked him why he didn’t complete his thesis. He said, “Harry the times don’t call for thesis writing.”
Looking at the events as a whole there is no pattern in the changes. The differential pace of overcoming obstruction to change for the better continued even in circumstances where it was ordered by court action. As has been already noted, in 1947 the Baltimore School System received the Hollander award for promoting integration in the schools. In 1954 Dr. John H. Fischer, the school superintendent received the award for promoting school integration. Integration of the Baltimore schools was achieved smoothly. The University of Maryland, on the other hand, resisted integration even after it was ordered by the courts.
Integration proceeded smoothly in Baltimore public housing. In 1956 the Baltimore Housing Authority received the award for promoting integration. The same could not be said for The Park Board and public recreation. Under pressure they reacted strangely. The one public golf course was heavily used but not open to blacks. Under a court order to make equal facilities available the Park Board set aside one day a week for blacks. This created the spectacle of even more backups for white tee times at the course while on the reserved day the relatively few black players could walk up and tee off. The same resistance was encountered around movies and restaurants. At the beginning of this period there was no place a black could by anything to eat downtown. If an integrated group wanted to eat together they had to go to Penn Station.
What stands out in looking at this differential pattern of change is that personal commitment made the difference. In an organization it was the leadership or the determination of even a small group of the membership. This was truly a time when it was “black and white together.”
There is one lesson in this work that continues to hold today. This concerns the effect of the extreme shortage of housing for blacks. Since the lines of segregated housing moved so slowly if one small area opened up prices would immediately be bid up by middle class blacks looking for less crowded conditions. This was aided by the unscrupulous practice of “block busting” where a real estate dealer would use a white proxy to buy a house and then sign it over to a black family.
Initially many of these new neighborhoods were integrated and middle class. The pressure to get housing by people in other overcrowded segregated areas soon led to overcrowding and a change of neighborhood character. Single family homes were converted to apartments. Lack of housing and overcrowding swamped may of the civil rights gains, for when neighborhoods deteriorated they were not only segregated but there was also a marked withdrawal of public and private services. The Baltimore Housing Authority is being sued because it is supposedly maintaining segregated housing. The school system is highly segregated.
One of the things devised to stem housing discrimination was the 1959 creation of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. It is still in existence and needed. It is a classic civil rights organization in that both blacks and whites are used to test whether housing is being offered on an equal basis. If it isn’t and negotiation doesn’t resolve the matter they go to court. The BNI not only provides a link to the past but its continued existence highlights the fact that the shortage of housing continues to be a major problem.
In sum, the lesson I draw from this history is that despite removing legal barriers social integration has not been fully achieved. While separatist elements in both races are a hindrance the biggest bar to integration is the lack of adequate housing for both blacks and whites. In the introduction to this work Eleanor Roosevelt points the way to progress. She notes that in many areas all that was necessary to achieve change was to do it and that many of the disastrous outcomes that were predicted did not happen. To her the fundamental shift in civil rights came when those who defended segregation went on the defensive. “This was a necessary ingredient of progress and it has given us the advantage. It is an advantage that we should exploit, because this is fundamentally a moral issue, more than a legal one or political one.” (p. 4) It is well to remember that most of the great advances were secured when those who were pushing for them were in integrated groups. The spirit of “We Shall Overcome” should once again imbue the effort to obtain adequate housing for all.
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Chaiklin, H. Obtaining civil rights in Baltimore. Retrieved [date accessed] from /eras/attaining-civil-rights-in-baltimore-1946-1960/.