Re­vival, brick by brick

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FROM PAGE ONE -

Turner Sta­tion is a “re­mark­able and com­pli­cated com­mu­nity,” says Louis S. Diggs, a lo­cal his­to­rian whose 2003 book, “From the Mead­ows to the Point,” told its story.

The place was born in an out-of-the-way spot, be­fore racial in­te­gra­tion and as a direct con­se­quence of racial prej­u­dice. Some say that iso­la­tion was ac­tu­ally the key to its suc­cess.

Ev­ery­one agrees an en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit brought it to life.

Bor­dered by Dun­dalk Av­enue to the north and Flem­ing Park to the south, by Main Street (an ex­ten­sion of Broen­ing High­way) to the west and Bear Creek to the east, this square mile of land 8 miles from down­town Bal­ti­more was an empty, marshy pas­ture when Joshua Turner, a white busi­ness­man, bought it in the 1880s.

He planned to use it to har­vest seag­ull guano. But the emer­gence of the steel and ship­build­ing in­dus­tries across the creek in Spar­rows Point changed all that.

When the com­pany that would be­come Beth­le­hem Steel built a town for its em­ploy­ees, it set aside a small en­clave for the black work­ers who had moved from the South as part of the Great Mi­gra­tion. But as busi­ness boomed, the com­pany de­clined to ex­pand that hous­ing, leav­ing black em­ploy­ees to fend for them­selves in seg­re­gated south­east­ern Bal­ti­more County.

Some of those barred from liv­ing in nearby com­mu­ni­ties like Dun­dalk and Mid­dle River built log cab­ins in “the Mead­ows,” a clear­ing near what is now Speed’s, and moved in.

Just be­fore the turn of the cen­tury, a young African-Amer­i­can trans­plant, An­thony Thomas, per­suaded Turner to sell parcels of his prop­erty to the squat­ters. Thomas, re­garded as the com­mu­nity’s founder, even set up a sav­ings and loan to help them.

Mears-Speed, 78, moved to Turner Sta­tion half a cen­tury ago and loved its chur­c­hand fam­ily-ori­ented cul­ture so much she never left.

She de­scribes its growth — how the first of its 12 churches, St. Matthew United Methodist, was in place by 1900; how a school, gro­cery store, doc­tors’ and den­tists’ of­fices and an un­der­taker fol­lowed; and how, by the mid-20th cen­tury, a com­mu­nity of 10,000 peo­ple, vir­tu­ally all of them African-Amer­i­can, was thriv­ing. Ev­ery dol­lar spent changed hands an av­er­age of eight times be­fore leav­ing the com­mu­nity, ac­cord­ing to town his­to­ri­ans.

By the 1950s, Turner Sta­tion boasted its own ju­nior-se­nior high school, an amuse­ment park with rides, a beach, a 2,000-seat ball­park and a sand­lot Ne­gro Leagues base­ball team, an air-con­di­tioned 700-seat movie the­ater, three suc­cess­ful taxi­cab busi­nesses, and a night­club. The Adams Cock­tail Lounge drew big-name black acts such as Redd Foxx, Cab Cal­loway and Pearl Bai­ley.

Mary Cole­man, 75, re­mem­bers work­ing in the movie the­ater — se­cretly, so as not to dis­please her church-go­ing grand­fa­ther — and gen­er­ally liv­ing in a place where she could walk any­where, any­time, and feel safe.

She didn’t ap­pre­ci­ate Turner’s unique­ness un­til 1960, she says, when she left to at­tend Mor­gan State Col­lege, where her friends couldn’t get enough of her sto­ries.

“None of them had grown up in a place like this,” says Cole­man, a re­tired univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tor and chair of the Turner Sta­tion His­tor­i­cal Com­mit­tee, a group that pro­motes aware­ness of the town’s past. “They were amazed there could be so much go­ing on in one small com­mu­nity.”

Fifty years later, Diggs agrees. The author of 12 books on African-Amer­i­can life in Bal­ti­more County, he has doc­u­mented the ex­is­tence of 40 black set­tle­ments in county his­tory.

Turner Sta­tion is the only one that sur­vives, he says, and he deems it no co­in­ci­dence.

“I don’t think there has ever been a com­mu­nity of such smart, in­dus­tri­ous peo­ple in the state of Mary­land, maybe even in the coun­try,” he says. “I’ know I’ve never come across one.”

Ex­tra­or­di­nary achieve­ment

Take a tour of Turner Sta­tion — down the curves of New Pitts­burg Av­enue, along Sollers Point Road, to Flem­ing Park in the shadow of the Key Bridge — and you’ll see a com­mu­nity of his­toric high­lights marked by signs of de­cline.

Blocks of tiny row­houses re­main in­tact, most of them tidily main­tained but some aban­doned. Red-brick Union Bap­tist Church — which used to be the movie the­ater — tow­ers above Main Street, its fa­cade in need of a power wash.

On the streets where chil­dren once walked to school, young men clus­ter in groups mid­day, seem­ingly with noth­ing to do.

Mears-Speed, a de­vout Chris­tian who calls her­self “Ser­vant Speed,” makes con­stant rounds of the neigh­bor­hood, rolling down her car win­dow to greet chil­dren, teens and old-timers by name. “Hello, Mother Speed!” many say.

“We’re try­ing to bring back busi­nesses, home own­er­ship, a whole way of life that is dis­ap­pear­ing,” she says.

The way of life in Turner Sta­tion fos­tered ex­tra­or­di­nary achieve­ment, in spite of the racial prej­u­dice that marked the era.

An­thony Thomas and his son, Joseph, a doc­tor, be­came pros­per­ous en­trepreneur­s who are re­mem­bered for their in­vest­ments in the com­mu­nity. World War II mil­i­tary heroes such as Arthur Han­cock, a Buf­falo Sol­dier who fought with the U.S. Army in Italy, and Mil­ton Holmes, a pi­lot who served with the elite Tuskegee Air­men, were sons of the com­mu­nity.

Mfume was a sickly child who grew up to be­come a five-term Mary­land con­gress­man and and an in­flu­en­tial eight-year pres­i­dent of the NAACP. Dun­bar Brooks was the first African-Amer­i­can pres­i­dent of the Bal­ti­more County school board.

Robert Curbeam Jr., 56, be­came a NASA as­tro­naut who went on mul­ti­ple space­walks and Hill, 72, was a star run­ning back for the Dal­las Cow­boys and Wash­ing­ton Red­skins.

The late heavy­weight boxer Larry Mid­dle­ton fought greats such as Jerry Quarry and Ken Nor­ton. Pup­peteer Kevin Clash pop­u­lar­ized the Sesame Street char­ac­ter Elmo be­fore al­le­ga­tions of mis­con­duct ended his ca­reer with the show.

Gui­tarist Robert “Wawa” Legrand has per­formed with Aretha Franklin and Dionne War­wick, while jazz trom­bon­ist and com­poser Dou­glas Pur­viance is a Grammy Award win­ner.

And Mears-Speed has spent two decades spread­ing the word that Turner Sta­tion was home to Hen­ri­etta Lacks, the house­wife and mother whose can­cer cells, har­vested with­out her knowl­edge at Johns Hop­kins Hospi­tal in 1951, have helped pro­duce count­less break­throughs in bio­med­i­cal re­search.

Mfume and Hill, life­long friends, agree they learned what mat­ters in Turner Sta­tion.

“We were taught to work hard, play by the rules, love your coun­try, cher­ish your faith, re­spect the el­derly,” says Mfume, 70, now pres­i­dent of the board of re­gents at Mor­gan State. “I like to say Turner Sta­tion taught me the value of val­ues. I believe those val­ues formed a foun­da­tion for ev­ery­thing I’ve been for­tu­nate enough to ac­com­plish.”

Hill, 72, a con­sul­tant with the Cow­boys, re­lates an in­ci­dent that epit­o­mized those val­ues.

When he was a Lit­tle League base­ball player, his team had so few re­sources the boys had to wear T-shirts dyed and sten­ciled by par­ents. When an all-star team from a richer com­mu­nity came to play, all decked out “like the Ori­oles,” Hill’s coach, the Turner Sta­tion le­gend Osce­ola Smith, stepped in.

“I can re­mem­ber Mr. Smitty gath­er­ing us and say­ing, ‘I know you’re look­ing at those uni­forms,’ ” Hill re­calls. “He said, ‘Oh, they’re pretty. But let me tell you some­thing, those uni­forms can’t hit or field. We can beat those guys.’ And we did.

“We learned we were as good as any­body if we stayed fo­cused and did things the right way.”

In some ways, Diggs says, Turner Sta­tion be­came a vic­tim of its own suc­cess. Chang­ing times, for bet­ter and for worse, also played a role.

Once its founders achieved fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity, their chil­dren left for col­lege or other op­por­tu­ni­ties and gen­er­ally didn’t come back. Civil rights laws meant they had more choices about where to live than their par­ents had.

As the lo­cal steel in­dus­try be­gan fad­ing, so did the pop­u­la­tion, which sank to 1,000 or so in 1990 and has set­tled at about 3,000.

And as busi­nesses folded and home val­ues fell, out­siders swept in to buy houses, rent­ing most units to new­com­ers less in­ter­ested in the com­mu­nity and its his­tory.

By 2003, The Sun re­ported that al­leys and side­walks were crumbling, a lack of street­lights had at­tracted drug deal­ers, older houses had be­come safety haz­ards, and zon­ing rules so lim­ited lot size it was hard to build homes at­trac­tive to fam­i­lies

What re­mained was a more di­verse, less co­her­ent, less re­li­gious com­mu­nity — and a swath of el­ders who re­mem­bered Turner Sta­tion as it once was, and had a pas­sion for bring­ing it back.

Mears-Speed, whom Diggs calls “in­dis­pens­able,” takes a per­sonal, street-level ap­proach. She’s a Girl Scout leader, a church­goer, a store owner, a babysit­ter and a daily vis­i­tor of the el­derly.

She has im­pro­vised an ar­ray of ad hoc neigh­bor­hood or­ga­ni­za­tions to ad­vance what she calls her life mis­sion — to “Save the Na­tion of Turner Sta­tion.”

Not all have gained the trac­tion of the Hen­ri­etta Lacks Legacy Group.

Now chaired by Adele New­son-Horst, co­or­di­na­tor of the women’s and gen­der stud­ies at Mor­gan State, the non­profit is a force in the neigh­bor­hood, where mem­bers hold an an­nual lun­cheon and Lacks day, lead tours and run a video and es­say con­test for school­child­ren each Fe­bru­ary that draws en­tries from across the coun­try.

The group’s goals: to pro­mote youth in­volve­ment in STEM, raise Lacks' pro­file and strengthen a com­mu­nity New­sonHorst con­sid­ers an ex­em­plar.

“Turner Sta­tion is im­por­tant be­cause it’s a sym­bol of what black com­mu­ni­ties have been and what they can be,” she says. “And it has prom­ise of ris­ing again.”

Glo­ria Nel­son agrees. A re­tired hu­man re­sources of­fi­cial, she’s pres­i­dent of the Turner Sta­tion Con­ser­va­tion Teams. Launched in the 1990s un­der an­other name, the group worked with then-Bal­ti­more County Coun­cil­man John Ol­szewski Sr., fa­ther of the cur­rent county ex­ec­u­tive, to de­velop a 2003 con­ser­va­tion plan that in­cluded dozens of pro­pos­als for re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing Turner Sta­tion.

Us­ing them as blue­prints, Nel­son’s vol­un­teer team has notched a string of suc­cesses.

They worked with the county to de­velop the Sollers Point Mul­ti­pur­pose Cen­ter, which in­cludes a gym, an au­di­to­rium, a county li­brary branch, a com­puter cen­ter and a Turner Sta­tion mu­seum.The group also helped at­tract $25 mil­lion in pri­vate and gov­ern­ment in­vest­ment to ren­o­vate Lyon Homes, a fed­eral hous­ing pro­ject built in the 1940s that has been con­verted into rental prop­erty.

The vol­un­teers reg­u­larly hold fairs to ed­u­cate renters about pro­grams that can lead to home own­er­ship. They are also try­ing to per­suade the Army Corps of En­gi­neers to pro­vide money to bol­ster the erod­ing shore­line in Flem­ing Park.

“It’s im­por­tant to do more than pre­serve what was. We have to look for­ward for the sake of the chil­dren here.”

Lots of work

Nel­son says they put in what amounts to full-time hours, meet­ing in one in­car­na­tion or other al­most daily, and that their to­geth­er­ness has given the com­mu­nity a voice.

“There have been in­di­vid­u­als fight­ing [for Turner Sta­tion] for a long time, but they haven’t al­ways been so well or­ga­nized,” she says. “We draw on each other’s tal­ents. That’s one rea­son we get things done.”

Not ev­ery­one agrees on how to go about restor­ing Turner Sta­tion. Mears-Speed and Cole­man were among those who fought the com­mu­nity cen­ter pro­ject be­cause it in­volved raz­ing the old high school, a Turner Sta­tion land­mark.

“It’s im­por­tant to do more than pre­serve what was,” says Edythe Brooks, Dun­bar’s widow and a team leader. “We have to look for­ward for the sake of the chil­dren here.”

The fac­tions agree on the larger goal — to pre­serve the essence of what made Turner Sta­tion such a spe­cial place, what­ever that might look like in a more mo­bile, more in­te­grated 21st cen­tury.

That can be done, Cole­man says, but only with the kind of de­ter­mi­na­tion her great un­cle Dr. Joseph Thomas showed as he helped build the place.

“We have to keep ham­mer­ing to tear down what­ever walls peo­ple have put up that keep them from help­ing,” she says. “But you can’t hit it with a sledge­ham­mer. We’re go­ing to do it brick by brick.”

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