From its founding in 1729, people of African descent have shaped the City of Baltimore politically, culturally and economically. African American Baltimoreans stood at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, built lasting civic and religious institutions and made transformative contributions to arts and culture.
Before the Civil War, Baltimore was home to more free blacks than any other American city. While the war brought freedom, it did not bring equality. Life in segregated Baltimore mirrored the injustices across the nation; the African American community established civic organizations, built churches, owned businesses and worked to bring about equality for all.
Below is a guide to significant sites of African American heritage in Baltimore. It is not an exhaustive listing but serves as an inspiration for further exploration.
The city center, nestled around Baltimore’s famed Inner Harbor, has been a place of commerce, residence, and culture for much of the city’s history. Today the city center is dense with museums and attractions that share the story of Baltimore’s African American community.
The Inner Harbor was once filled with wharves and docks, where ships were loaded and unloaded. During the 1700s and early 1800s, slaves were brought to Baltimore through these wharves (and those in nearby Fell’s Point). Businesses associated with the slave trade were also near the Inner Harbor, including slave jails and auction sites.
Physical connections to the ugly past of slavery are long gone; today important institutions serve to remember and commemorate the past. Most notable is the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture at the corner of E. Pratt and President streets in the Jonestown neighborhood.
Most of the sites in this central Baltimore section are steps away from the Inner Harbor’s hotels and restaurants. A few, such as the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum and the Rawlings Conservatory, are farther away but well worth the trip.
Baltimore Civil War Museum
Black Soldiers Monument
Howard Peter Rawlings Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
McKim Free School
Read's Drug Store
National Great Blacks in Wax Museum
Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture
Star-Spangled Banner Flag House
Eubie Blake National Jazz and Cultural Center
The Upton, Marble Hill, and Bolton Hill neighborhoods together form a National Register Historic District known as Old West Baltimore—the city’s premier early African American neighborhood. Beginning in the 1890s, African Americans began living in homes in the neighborhoods. In this community, African Americans gained political power, established social and religious institutions, and started businesses.
The churches served to not only guide spiritual life but to spearhead social progress. Many were deeply associated with civil rights movements throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1900, more than 12 African American churches resided in Old West Baltimore. They helped create almost every important civic institution in the community, including Morgan State University, the YMCA and YWCA, and the Baltimore Branch of the NAACP.
West Baltimore was also home to The Afro-American Newspapers, which since its founding in 1892 gave voice to the Civil Rights Movement. Founded by John H. Murphy, Sr., a former slave, the paper evolved from his church’s publication. By 1922, it was the most widely circulated black newspaper along the East Coast. Under the 24-year leadership of John’s son Carl Murphy, The Afro-American Newspapers rose to national prominence, reaching a peak weekly circulation of 235,000 in 1945.The Afro-American Newspapers advocated for the hiring of African Americans by Baltimore’s police and fire departments, black representation in the legislature, and the establishment of a state-supported African American university. The paper also campaigned against the Southern Railroad’s use of Jim Crow cars and fought to obtain equal pay for Maryland’s black schoolteachers. Today The Afro-American Newspapers publishes Baltimore and Washington, DC editions and remains the nation’s second-longest-running African American, family-owned newspaper.
For a more in-depth look at the churches, institutions, and talented individuals who called West Baltimore home, take advantage of a leisurely stroll along the Pennsylvania Avenue Heritage Trail. The two-mile urban heritage trail explores the community, civil rights legacy, and famous residents of Baltimore’s premier historic African American neighborhood. Major attractions along the trail include historic churches (Union Baptist, Sharp Street Memorial, Bethel AME, Douglas Memorial, and Saint Peter Claver); the home (and future museum) of civil rights leader Lillie Carroll Jackson; and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s elementary school. Colorful storyboard panels help guide visitors and provide some background on the amazing people that lived and worked in the neighborhood.
Arch Social Club
Billie Holiday Plaza
Royal Theater Marquee Monument
Lillie Carroll Jackson Civil Rights Museum
PS103: Henry Highland Garnet School (Thurgood Marshall’s Elementary School)
Historic Saint Mary’s Chapel
Mount Clare Museum House
Fell’s Point was the point of entry and often the first home for successive waves of immigrants throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries. Both enslaved and free African Americans were a prominent part of the neighborhood’s population, working as household servants and in many maritime industries. As a result of this immigration and maritime heritage, Fell’s Point became an ethnically diverse, working-class neighborhood made up of artisans, sailors, and craftsmen.
Frederick Douglass credited his time in Baltimore, when he lived and worked in Fell’s Point, providing him with the educational and moral strength to progress from an illiterate slave to a teacher of others. Douglass’ legacy in Fell’s Point can be seen in the 500 block of South Dallas Street. In 1891, he purchased the abandoned Strawberry Alley Church, razed the building, and constructed five rowhouses to provide affordable housing for African Americans.
Fell’s Point also has a connection to Billie “Lady Day” Holiday. Her teenaged mother Sadie raised her in East Baltimore, mostly in and around Fell’s Point. Sometime in 1926, they moved into a two-story house at 217 South Durham Street. At age ten, she began singing in theaters, whiskey houses, and storefront churches throughout the “Point.” The family also lived for a short time at 219 South Durham before moving to New York in 1929.
History runs throughout the cobblestone streets of Fell’s Point. Founded in 1726 by William Fell, a shipbuilder from England, Fell’s Point served as the city’s deep-water port for over a century. Visitors to this area can start their journey at the Fell’s Point Visitor Center, run by the Fell’s Point Preservation Society. The center has exhibits on the neighborhood’s diverse history and offers walking tours that explore the African American experience in Fell’s Point.
For a closer look at Fell’s Point’s history, its people, and its places, follow along the path of the Historic Fell’s Point Trail. The urban heritage trail winds along waterfront promenades and narrow streets, exploring maritime history, the defense of Baltimore during the War of 1812, and the people who made the deep-water shipbuilding center their home.
Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park
Mount Auburn Cemetery
2630 Waterview Avenue | sharpstreet.org/mtauburn.html
Mount Auburn Cemetery is the oldest owned and operated African American cemetery in Baltimore City. Due to segregation, blacks were prohibited from being buried in white cemeteries; Mount Auburn represented the only location African Americans could be laid to rest with dignity.
Founded in 1868 as a black burial ground, the deed was signed in 1872 by Reverend James Peck and the trustees of the first African American Methodist church in Baltimore: Sharp Street Methodist Episcopal Church. The cemetery was officially dedicated as the “City of the Dead for Colored People.” In 1884, the name was changed to Mount Auburn Cemetery.
It is approximated that 55,000 people have been interred in the cemetery. Notable burials at the cemetery include Joseph Gans, the first African American boxing champion; John H. Murphy, Sr., founder of The Afro-American Newspapers; and civil rights pioneer Lillie Carroll Jackson. The cemetery was designated a Baltimore City Landmark in 1986 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.