I’m probably a bit biased, but Baltimore is a charming city with lots of local flavor and (arguably) the best crab cakes in the country. Hailed as the birthplace of the Star-Spangled Banner, my hometown is also rich in Black history and culture. The port city is where Thurgood Marshall was born, where Billie Holiday spent her youth, and where Frederick Douglass worked in the shipyards.
Want to explore Baltimore’s African American heritage on your next trip? Let us be your guide.
Museums, Monuments and Murals
Baltimore’s museum scene is a great place to start a Black History tour. The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum is one of the only museums in the country dedicated to the preservation of African American history. Located in East Baltimore, the expansive museum houses more than 150 life size and lifelike wax figures of celebrated Black figures past and present, including educator Mary McLeod Bethune, Maryland-born freedom fighters Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, and President Barack Obama. Located in downtown Baltimore, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum acknowledges the contributions of Black Marylanders, and overlooking the Inner Harbor the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park is a former shipyard dedicated to African Americans like Douglass, who helped to develop Baltimore’s maritime industry. And in a West Baltimore row home, the Lillie Carroll Jackson Civil Rights Museum houses six galleries filled with drawings, paintings, letters, photographs and historic documents related to the Civil Rights Movement.
Next, take a historic walk down “The Avenue.” From the 1920s to the late 1950s, Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore was home to a flourishing strip of Black-owned businesses, including the legendary Royal Theater. The Royal opened in 1922 and was one of the country’s premiere venues for Black entertainers, where racially-mixed audiences were welcome and Black patrons felt free from the constraints of segregation. In addition to Holiday, the historic playhouse hosted vaudeville acts, movies, and top performers like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, James Brown, and opera singer Marion Anderson.
In more recent times, the area was at the center of both peaceful and volatile protests in 2015 following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray while in police custody, and is a region striving for economic and cultural revitalization. To bridge the legacy of the past and present, a commemorative marquee marks the Royal Theater’s former location at the corner of Pennsylvania and Lafayette Avenues. A bronze statue of Billie Holiday, a fixture at the Royal, with her signature gardenia in her hair and captured in mid-song, also stands on “The Avenue,” and at the historic Arch Social Club on Pennsylvania and North Avenues there’s a vibrant, 30-foot mural featuring Holiday and acclaimed author and West Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates.
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Pick up unique handmade wooden journals and customize your very own at Drama Mama Bookshop.
Decorate your home or office space with fragrant soy candles from KSM Candle Co. or sign up for a candle making workshop if there happens to be one while you’re visiting.
Shop for cheeky Charm City swag at the eclectic Pandora’s Box boutique in Fell’s Point. And while you’re at it — check out the colorful murals and tributes to Lady Day in the cobblestoned southeast Baltimore neighborhood where she grew up: Upper Fell’s Point in the 200 block of S. Durham Street.
Check out the rest of our Black History & Culture blog series by following the tag below.