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Seen & Heard: Maryland’s Civil Rights Era in Photographs and Oral Histories

An exhibition and panel discussion celebrate a gold mine of local civil rights history

Photo: Baltimore City Life Museum Collection, Special Collections Department, Copy of original owned by the Maryland Historical Society, License: N/A

Baltimore City Life Museum Collection, Special Collections Department, Copy of original owned by the Maryland Historical Society

A photograph by Paul Henderson of a 1948 Protest outside the segregated Ford’s Theatre, as seen in the Maryland Historical Society’s new exhibit Seen and Heard: Maryland’s Civil Rights Era in Photographs and Oral Histories.

Photo: Henderson Collection, Baltimore City Life Museum Collection, Special Collections Department, Copy of original owned by the Maryland Historical Society, License: N/A

Henderson Collection, Baltimore City Life Museum Collection, Special Collections Department, Copy of original owned by the Maryland Historical Society

Street scenes: a Henderson photograph of Pennsylvania Avenue in 1948 with Herbert’s Mens Wear visible in the back

Photo: Baltimore City Life Museum Collection, Maryland Historical Society, License: N/A

Baltimore City Life Museum Collection, Maryland Historical Society

An undated photograph of Henderson himself, standing with his camera on the ledge of a window in City Hall, taken by an unknown photographer


Seen and Heard’s panel discussion

Thursday Feb. 23 at 6 P.M. at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St.

For more information, visit MDHS.org

The Maryland Historical Society has long possessed two nearly inexhaustible collections of primary source material from Baltimore’s civil rights era. One, the Paul Henderson Photograph Collection, consists of more than 6,000 photo negatives and hundreds of prints by Henderson, a longtime photographer for the Baltimore Afro-American. It has quietly resided at MdHS since 1997. The other, the McKeldin-Jackson Oral History Project, made up of 87 lengthy interviews with civil rights activists and opponents, was completed in the late 1970s. It has been at MdHS ever since. Yet few Baltimoreans know that either of these rich collections exist. This week, MdHS brings both of them into the light with Seen and Heard: Maryland’s Civil Rights Era in Photographs and Oral Histories, a panel discussion and exhibition.

“It’s kind of a multipurpose thing,” says Jennifer Ferretti, curator of photographs. “It’s to celebrate the collections, but it’s also to say ‘This happened here.’ . . . [I]f someone leaves with a sense of pride in their city and what happened here, and learned about what happened, then I would be so satisfied.”

While both collections have technically been available to the public before now, Seen and Heard represents years of work on the part of MdHS staff: Most of Henderson’s photos lacked useful identification labels, and the oral history collection had to be digitized and inventoried. Now made more accessible, the collections often complement one another, creating a vivid, multifaceted portrait of the civil rights era in Baltimore, one that is likely to yield surprises for years to come.

MdHS kicks off the unveiling with a panel discussion on Feb. 23, accompanied by a small exhibition of Henderson’s photos. The panel, which will focus on the civil rights era, will feature both experts and direct participants in the movement: Larry Gibson, a law professor who chairs the state Commission to Coordinate the Study, Commemoration, and Impact of the History and Legacy of Slavery in Maryland; Michelle Scott, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) associate professor specializing in African-American history, black music culture, and women’s studies; William Zorzi, former reporter and editor for The Baltimore Sun; Helena Hicks, a participant in the 1955 Read’s Drug Store sit-ins (for a Q&A with Hicks, Click here); and Barry Lanman, director of the Martha Ross Center for Oral History at UMBC.

Lanman will talk about his experience back in the ’70s as an interviewer for the McKeldin-Jackson Oral History Project. The interviews, which took place from 1975 to 1977, sponsored by MdHS, were an effort to examine Maryland’s civil rights movement through the lens of two iconic figures: Lillie May Carroll Jackson and Theodore McKeldin. Jackson presided over the Baltimore branch of the NAACP for more than three decades, starting in 1935. Often known as “Ma Jackson,” the mother of the civil rights movement, Jackson greatly increased membership in the organization, held voter-registration drives, and was famous for fearlessly badgering politicians into granting civil rights to African-Americans, long before the broader movements of the 1960s. McKeldin, a white man who was Baltimore’s mayor twice, once in the 1940s and once in the 1960s, was Maryland’s governor from 1951 to 1959. He was an outspoken advocate for civil rights, working to end segregation in numerous spheres of daily life, including theaters, stores, state ferries, and beaches, and played an important role in ending school segregation.

Interviewees for the project were asked about their relationships with and impressions of these two individuals, but the conversations are wide-ranging, touching on organizations such as the NAACP and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), state politics, lynchings, riots, desegregation, employment, education, and everything in between. The subjects include many illustrious figures: former congresspeople and governors, judges, ministers, and mayors. They include McKeldin’s son and Jackson’s children (Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the first African-American woman to practice law in Maryland, among them). The Grand Titan of the state’s Ku Klux Klan in the mid-1960s participates as well. But many of the interviews are with unknowns: Theodore McKeldin’s personal secretary, the supervisor of the snack bar at Goucher College, a pianist active in the civil rights movement.

The interviews, which often last an hour or more, are raw and unedited, complete with every cough, “um,” and “uh.” Personalities, so often obscured in history texts, quickly emerge in these interviews. Virginia Jackson Kiah, Lillie May Carroll Jackson’s daughter, frequently expresses irritation with her interviewer, for example. “Three years. That’s all I can say, Mr. Exact Years,” she says at one point, in answer to a question about a date. Telling details about the historic figures under examination are also revealed. Jackson’s forceful demeanor comes through in a story Kiah, an artist, tells about her mother approaching local ministers on her behalf. “My mother would say, ‘You need a portrait painted of yourself. You know good and well that they’re not going to think about you at all after you’re gone. . . .’ And so, ‘Yes, Mrs. Jackson. All right, Mrs. Jackson.’ I got one order after the other like that,” Kiah says.

The interviews also present history as seen through the eyes of participants who do not always agree. Kiah remembers her mother personally repairing rental properties that she owned, up on the roof “doing it the hard way.” But Willie Adams, a numbers runner turned millionaire venture capitalist, has less positive remarks on that aspect of Jackson’s life. “I heard she was a very poor landlord, that she had all kinds of violations on her properties,” he says. (Adams praises Jackson’s civil rights efforts, however. “Lillie was hollering back there when you were afraid to holler,” he says.)

The interviews, as well as Henderson’s photographs, also highlight how early civil rights protests began in Maryland. Col. William “Box” Harris, a former police officer, remembers walking in picket lines in the mid-1930s, “trying to break down barriers of the A&P stores and other stores in Baltimore.”

About 85 percent of the interviews have been digitized, and the public can request transcripts or CDs after choosing from the inventory list on the MdHS web site (mdhs.org). Within a month or two, MdHS plans to install a new listening station, so visitors will be able to listen to the oral histories on-site.

But a taste of Paul Henderson’s work is available in the exhibition that accompanies the panel discussion. Henderson was an African-American photographer who worked in the city from the 1930s to the 1960s, primarily for the Afro-American. He lived on McCulloh Street and often photographed then vibrant Pennsylvania Avenue, which was within walking distance. He also captured images of many well-known African-Americans of the day, including Paul Robeson, Thurgood Marshall, Pearl Bailey, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, and Mahalia Jackson. His vast portfolio includes photos of protests and NAACP events, church gatherings, political rendezvous, street scenes, and family portraits—including an iconic image of Jackson and her family, including son-in-law Clarence Mitchell Jr., after whom the Baltimore City Courthouse is named.

The collection came to the Historical Society in 1997, when the Baltimore City Life Museum closed its doors. The photographs weren’t organized, and while some of the negatives were labeled, these often weren’t particularly helpful. “The labels were mostly really obvious descriptions,” Ferretti says. “Some of them would say, ‘It’s a party!’ So we kind of had to dig a little deeper.”

Ferretti has spent two years categorizing the collection and trying to identify the origins of the photographs. (A Towson University historic preservation class has also pitched in, helping to assign a unique identification number to each photograph.) Ferretti’s scavenger hunt has involved countless online searches through the Afro-American’s archives in pursuit of the article a photograph might originally have run alongside. Local history books such as Antero Pietila’s Not in My Neighborhood have also proven useful. In one case, Ferretti discovered from Pietila’s book that a 1948 photograph of a small store on Pennsylvania Avenue called Charm Centre captured one of the few places where black women could try on clothing at the time. (In a nice example of the synchronicity between the two collections, the store was owned by oral-history interviewee Willie Adams.)

But the most invaluable help, Ferretti says, came from people who have studied the era and lived through it, including several who will appear on the panel. “People like Larry Gibson and Bill Zorzi have been so valuable to us,” she says. By way of example, she cites a photograph that came to MdHS labeled simply “School Faculty.” Gibson saw the photograph and identified Thurgood Marshall, Esther McCready—whose court case forged a path for African-Americans to attend nursing school—and Donald Gaines Murray, among others.

Though Ferretti has created reference photographs for every image in the collection—to avoid constant handling of the negatives—and begun to put images online, the identification process is far from complete. “I could spend years looking through articles to try and match up Henderson’s photos to stories in the Afro,” Ferretti says. “This is not the end for me.”

The exhibition, which will be on display until the end of August, consists of just 26 photos. Ferretti says she chose those photographs that echoed themes that run throughout Henderson’s work: Pennsylvania Avenue, Morgan State College and education in general, the NAACP, and city and state politics. “I definitely had my favorites that I knew absolutely had to be in this show,” she says. She points to a photograph of well-dressed pedestrians walking along a Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk. To the left, a large, partially obscured sign reads "NOW SHOWING . . . HISTORY!"

Another striking photo depicts an early Baltimore snowball salesman. He pushes a wooden cart topped with a large block of ice and bottles of syrup. Nearby a small boy in short pants gazes on longingly. The label explains that the undated photo was taken in West Baltimore’s Harlem Park, the first residential area in the Baltimore Urban Renewal Housing Agency’s 1959 program.

A 1948 protest photo in front of Ford’s Theater eloquently captures the spirit of the time. In it, singer Paul Robeson—who came to Baltimore specifically to protest Ford’s Theater’s Jim Crow admissions policies—marches with other protesters, black and white, wearing giant sandwich boards. At the time, blacks were admitted, but were forced to sit in the balcony. They do not know it, but they are in the middle of a battle to desegregate Ford’s that will last for seven years.

“This is one that really popped to me, and told more of a story than I could tell on the label,” Ferretti says. “People think civil rights and they think North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia. But there’s so much history in Baltimore.”

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