Photograph by Marti Pitrelli, October 31, 2015.

Freedom House demolition is a wake-up call for preservation in West Baltimore

Last week, Bethel AME Church demolished 1234 Druid Hill Avenue, a rowhouse located just outside Upton’s Marble Hill historic district with strong connections to Baltimore’s Civil Rights movement. The demolition came as a shock to neighborhood activists who had urged city officials to investigate and protect the property when Bethel AME began work on the building in late September.

Demoltion contractor at 1234 Druid Hill Avenue, September 2015. Photo courtesy Dr. Steva A. Komeh, The Historic Marble Hill Community Association.
Demoltion contractor at 1234 Druid Hill Avenue, September 2015. Photo courtesy Dr. Steva A. Komeh, The Historic Marble Hill Community Association.
Harry S. Cummings. Courtesy University of Maryland.
Harry S. Cummings. Courtesy University of Maryland.

1234 Druid Hill Avenue is known to a generation of local Civil Rights activists as “Freedom House”—serving as an office to the local chapter of the NAACP, hosting meetings with Clarence Mitchell, Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson, luncheons with Eleanor Roosevelt and even Martin Luther King, Jr. Known as a “mighty little organization,” Freedom House was established by the Baltimore NAACP in 1970 under the leadership of Dr. Lillie M. Jackson. By December 1977, the organization had “received many citations including the AFRO’s highest honor for its successful crusades in reducing unemployment, crime and delinquency.”

Just as importantly, 1234 Druid Hill Avenue had been the home of Harry Sythe Cummings and his family from 1899 to 1911. In 1889, Cummings graduated from the University of Maryland Law School (one of the first two black men to do so) and, in 1890, became the first African American elected to a Baltimore City Council seat.

How did Baltimore lose the Freedom House?

Carol Ott, July 2015. Baltimore Slumlord Watch.
Carol Ott, July 2015. Baltimore Slumlord Watch.

1234 Druid Hill Avenue and its neighbor at 1232 have been owned or controlled by Bethel AME Church for decades. In recent years, the buildings deteriorated significantly and, in July 2015, Baltimore Slumlord Watch highlighted their poor condition. Bethel AME Church responded to these issues by securing a city building permit for both buildings in late September that allowed non-structural alterations and limited demolition (e.g. removing debris, interior drywall, nonbearing walls). Unfortunately, in October the church changed their plans and received approval from the Baltimore Housing Department to demolish 1234 Druid Hill Avenue—without notifying preservation advocates or the local chapter of the NAACP.

It is currently unclear whether the demolition permit for 1234 also applies to 1232. Continuing confusion around the status of the permit for this planned demolition has been a source of frustration for concerned residents. If reports by residents are accurate, Bethel AME Church is planning to continue to demolish 1232 Druid Hill Avenue within the next few days.

What can be done to preserve Baltimore’s Civil Rights heritage?

The destruction of the Freedom House on Druid Hill Avenue is a shocking wake-up call for anyone concerned about the preservation of Baltimore’s Civil Rights heritage. Persistent vacancy and demolition by neglect are destroying historic buildings that tell the important story of the Civil Rights movement in Baltimore and around the country. Please join Baltimore Heritage as we support tomorrow’s rally urging Bethel AME Church to preserve 1232 Druid Hill Avenue and fight for the protection of West Baltimore’s Civil Rights landmarks. Baltimore Heritage is asking neighborhood leaders and elected officials to support a comprehensive effort to address the deteriorating condition of the landmarks of Baltimore Civil Rights history and ensure their preservation for future generations to discover.

Rally to Save Baltimore’s Civil Rights Heritage

Thursday, November 12, 2015, 1:00pm
1234 Druid Hill Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21217
RSVP and share this event on Facebook!

Learn more about our work to document and protect Civil Rights landmarks. For questions or additional information about tomorrow’s rally, please contact Louis Fields, President, African American Tourism Council of Maryland, Inc. at 443-983-7974.

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