Mention the heyday of Pennsylvania Avenue to any Baltimore native born 1950 or earlier and you are sure to revive tales of limos, lined up one after the other on “The Avenue.” Restaurants dished out Soul Food and Seafood with equal parts gusto. Nightclubs jumped with all the electricity of the latest dances. Big names in Black entertainment, business, education and politics showed up to see and be seen on The Avenue.
A large concentration of historic Black churches settled in the area prior to and after the Civil War. In 1925, Frederick Douglass High School was one of the best Black high schools in the nation. Morgan State College trained many Black professionals living in Baltimore. In the 1920s-1930s, racial assertiveness grew leaps and bounds in the city. African-Americans battled discrimination in education and led a successful “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign to force stores, including many on Pennsylvania Avenue, to hire African-American workers. As a result communities around the Avenue produced black doctors, dentists, real estate agents, physicians, attorneys, pharmacists barbershops, hair salons, who also formed a number of self-help associations and business leagues.
Although most Pennsylvania Avenue stores were owned by European Americans, they had a difference you felt in your gut. African-Americans could try on clothes — something not allowed elsewhere. On the Avenue, you could buy practically anything and holiday parades gave the area a sense of panache. The Avenue was a Jazz Mecca with Billie Holiday, Chick Webb, Cab Calloway, Eubie Blake and more. On The Avenue, you were Somebody!
Change brewed in the mid-1950s, as African-Americans slowly won opportunities to expand their livelihood throughout the city. Pennsylvania Avenue held on by its reputation for entertainment, the churches, and with promotional coupons to patronize small businesses on The Avenue. Then the 1960s arrived. TV became commonplace and downtown theaters completely desegregated, reducing the need to visit a black movie theater. The black middle class gave more patronage to downtown department stores and banks. Those gradual changes slowly weakened The Avenue, but rapid change came in April 1968.
The riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968 were devastating. Merchants of all colors were looted. When those merchants collected insurance checks and moved their businesses from the inner city, the Black middle class followed. A second rapid change was caused by an urban redevelopment that disrupted businesses along Pennsylvania Avenue – a new subway line. Caught in the crosscurrents, the Avenue reached such a tattered state in 1971 that the Royal Theater was needlessly torn down by city officials without major protest by the community.
Fortunately, Jazz has returned to The Avenue Market and community revitalization efforts are underway, including the placement of more historic site markers. The Arch Club is still open at the corner of Pennsylvania and North Avenue. But one desperately missing piece is a cultural magnet to attract crowds again. An African-American Research Library, Cab Calloway and Chick Webb monuments at the Royal Theater site would do nicely. Maybe someone will convince Baltimore’s Great Blacks in Wax Museum to move here as well.
Visit the Pennsylvania Avenue African American Heritage Trail
Take a Sunday stroll through Baltimore’s premier historic African American community. Hear the stories of church and civil rights leaders that changed the nation. Along with New York City’s Harlem, Chicago’s Bronzeville and Washington’s U Street, Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue was the place to be. Something was always happening on the “Avenue.” Guided walking tours provided May – October.