A new book examines how middle-class African Americans in Baltimore overcame barriers of color and racial tensions along the Liberty Road Corridor over the past five decades as they established themselves in classic suburban neighborhoods.
Author Gregory Smithsimon, professor of sociology at the City University of New York, College of Brooklyn, draws on interviews, archives, and census data to show how this area of Baltimore County is now home to about 82,000 black people. The book is titled Freedom Road, the Black Middle Class Suburbs and the Battle Between Civil Rights and Neoliberalism.
He notes that in 1910, Baltimore was “home to about eighty thousand African Americans, the second-largest black population in the country after New Orleans.” Many of these racially segregated residents lived in West and Northwest Baltimore, and moved over the years to neighborhoods such as Walbrook and Forest Park, and later Ashburton. By the time the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was passed, Baltimore County had been declared.
But it wasn’t that easy.
For middle-class blacks, moving beyond Northern Parkway and Howard Park wasn’t the same for a white mortgage seeker to leave Montford Avenue and move to Bel Air.
Rundlestown can be a distant and dreamy destination.
For starters, the Baltimore county government has been wary of blacks leaving Baltimore City for their homes across the county line.
Former Baltimore County Executive Dale Anderson, convicted of tax evasion in 1974, enforced a standing order that his police officers on patrol report any African American family or individual moving to Baltimore County.
The book goes on to say that years later, police officers could stop black residents on their way home from practicing choir as they passed, and asked why they were out at that time of night.
Apparently Smithsimon rang the right doorbell and listened intently to some people who had been through these times.
One such voice is James Crockett, a leading real estate broker at Black. Crockett himself lived on Liberty Heights Street within the city of Baltimore.
Crockett had a wonderful memory and was blessed with a personality that took him far within whatever endeavors he chose. He was chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners and could navigate a path to obtaining a mortgage from conservative banks.
Crockett realized the fallout when the federal government made Baltimore home to the Social Security Administration. When the agency moved past its offices in the Candler Building on Pratt Street, it moved to Woodlawn on land that Crockett said had been donated by developer and philanthropist Henry Knott.
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The Woodlawn headquarters and Altmeyer Building opened a job market for African Americans, who, the author stated, performed better at obtaining federal public service jobs than jobs in private industry. The federal government was prepared for the suburbs out of fear of a nuclear attack on the downtown areas.
With these jobs and salaries came the ability to seek better housing in more stable neighborhoods.
“Liberty Street has a ring of a symbolic pseudonym that an ethnographer might choose to represent the African American community’s journey toward prosperity, beginning with an inner-city ghetto and delivering some members to a promised land of safe neighborhoods, quality housing, good income and successful, hard-working families,” he wrote. Smithsimon.
The author addresses the issue of mortgages and suggests here that one individual – James Ross – had an influence on the course of events. While Ross is known for his vision and his role in creating the new city of Columbia, the author asserts that Rouse’s mortgage company was color blind and helped mortgage seekers in their quest to relocate to the new developments and streets along the Liberty Road corridor.
The author interviewed three neighborhood and education leaders, Ella White Campbell and Emily Wolfson, as well as another realtor, Malcolm “Mal” Sherman.
Sherman worked in early racially non-discriminatory sales in Columbia and later sold condominiums in the Liberty Street area. Campbell and Wolfson were two tough, charismatic community leaders who preached common sense.
“The determination and compassion of the residents I came to know in my research put them in an especially strong position to redefine them to realize the dream of suburbia in a more inclusive way,” Smithson wrote.