Black Arts & Black Power: Creating Baltimore's Black Arts District

By Brion Gill | Call To Action

Jul 06

The proposed footprint for Baltimore’s Black Arts District

Historically, Pennsylvania Avenue was the highlight of Black Baltimore. The great Royal Theatre, now commemorated by a marquee in the place the building once stood, was formerly a stop on what was known as the “chitlin circuit,” a ring of premiere theatres amenable to Black performers that included — the Carver Theatre in Birmingham, Alabama, Cotton Club and Apolloe Theatre in New York City, the Regal Theatre in Chicago; the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.; the Uptown Theatre in Philadelphia, Club Eaton in historic Eatonville, Florida and the Fox Theatre in Detroit.

Historic West Baltimore holds many “firsts” for the city. The first black owned movie house, the Metropolitan Theatre, was located at the corner of North and Pennsylvania Avenue. It sits just across from the first Black male social club (now the oldest, continually running black social club in America) Arch Social club. The first Black run hospital and medical school, run by Dr. George Whittington Kennard, an African-American doctor in 1885 was in Marble Hill, just past Pennsylvania Avenue. Marble Hill was also known for its affluent Black families who regularly shined their white marble steps and kept a pristine looking community.

Royal Theatre. Pennsylvania Avenue, Baltimore. October 1949.
Photograph by Paul Henderson

The local churches of the Upton community (which houses a portion of Pennsylvania Avenue) welcomed notable Black leaders like Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Dubois.

But unfortunately after the riots of 1968 following the death of Martin Luther King Jr. the area experienced extreme economic downturn as it was deemed unsafe, crime ridden and risky for business owners to remain. Moreover,the rise of integration led Black patrons to flock to white businesses while abandoning Black businesses. City officials and developers then moved to focus on building the downtown business district and the Inner Harbor Project, thus disinvesting in smaller Black communities. Consequently, Pennsylvania Avenue began withering into what we see today.

Still despite all of its changes over time we recognize the great potential that still exists there and have begun working to restore it to its previous glory. The proposed arts and entertainment district currently has 5 anchor institutions, 13 reputable artistic, cultural, and entertainment enterprises, 10 overlapping designations that coincide with the district, and a myriad of arts and cultural events that take place each year. The district is proposed to stretch from Fulton & Pennsylvania to the north, Dolphin and & Pennsylvania Avenue to the south and a block respectively to the east and the west. (There are certain boundary extensions to include cultural assets such as Everyone’s Place, the Douglass Apartments, and Mosque Ul Haqq founded as Mosque #6 by Malcolm X).

Download Map of the Black Arts District


Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle is proud to announce that Cultural Curator Lady Brion has submitted the pre-application to designate the Pennsylvania Avenue thoroughfare as a Black arts and entertainment district.

Last year, Lady Brion was asked to join Mayor Catherine Pugh’s Safe Arts Task Force. It was there that she first made the recommendation that Pennsylvania avenue receive the designation. It was later included as an official recommendation to the city of Baltimore to increase arts accessibility particularly in Black communities. Mayor Pugh expressed interest in the idea and Lady Brion subsequently held a public meeting to present her ideas regarding the creation of the district. Since then she has teamed up with Karim Amin from the University of Baltimore, Nneka Nnamdi of Fight Blight Baltimore and members of Neighborhood Design Center, Arch Social Club, Avenue Baker/The Royal Theatre and Community Heritage Corporation, Jubilee Arts, Main Street — Pennsylvania Avenue, Upton CDC, Druid Heights CDC and Schreiber Brothers Development to bring the vision of the district into fruition.


GET INVOLVED

Maryland currently has 26 A&E districts, three of which are in Baltimore. To establish a new district a municipality must submit an application to the Maryland State Arts Council in partnership with the Department of Commerce by October 1, 2018. In order to achieve this goal we are looking for volunteers to:

  1. Sign the petition!
  2. Canvas Baltimore city to collect 5,000 t0 10,000 signatures on a petition in support of the district.

  3. Survey historic west baltimore for existing artists, art/cultural institutions and art/cultural enterprises.

  4. Plan a kick off event to provide Baltimore residents an opportunity to give feedback about the district and to celebrate Black Arts in Baltimore.

  5. Collect letters of support for the district.

If you are interested in volunteering with us please email us at info@lbsbaltimore.com.

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About the Author

Brion Gill (also known by her stage name: Lady Brion) is the Resident Poet for LBS. She is a former debater and alumni of Howard University. Brion is also an accomplished performer and entrepreneur.She has been writing and performing poetry since age 14 and performed her poetry all around the United States and internationally. She is also the Poet Laureate of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church.