Revisiting a 19th-century Flea Glass from the Southern Dispensary

by Patricia Samford, Director of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation (MAC) Lab

Since the theme of Maryland Archeology Month 2021 is  “The Archeology of Healing and Medicine,” I thought it would be a great time to revisit a rudimentary microscope called a “flea glass,” which I first studied in a February 2017 Curator’s Choice piece. The monthly Curator’s Choice series highlights significant or unusual artifacts from the Maryland Archaeological Conservation (MAC) Lab collections, and a 19th-century flea glass from the Southern Dispensary in Baltimore qualifies on both counts.

“The eye of a human being is a microscope,
which makes the world seem bigger than it really is.”
– Khalil Gibran (1883-1931)

Nineteenth-century physicians often required more than just the naked eye to assist them in offering quality health care to their patients. Using magnifying devices, like this simple microscope, also called a flea glass, allowed them to gain a better view of wounds or conduct routine visual examinations of ears, eyes, and throats.

An example of a handled Flea Glass Dating to the Second Quarter of the Nineteenth Century.
(Source: https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/simple-microscope-flea-glass-245822098)

Invented in the 1500s, flea glasses were used primarily for studying insects and other small life forms rather than for medical purposes—hence the name. A small, convex lens held nearest to the eye and a larger, flat lens at the opposite end of a short metal tube allowed for magnification ranges of 6x to 10x.

The lenses and iron fittings of a flea glass or similar simple microscope were recovered from a circa 1850-1870 privy excavated at the Federal Reserve site (18BC27) in Baltimore. This magnifying instrument may have been originally mounted on a stand. A medical use for this scientific instrument was assumed because the privy fill also contained a number of other artifacts relating to medical care, including a mortar and pestle, a salve jar, a pill tile, a leech jar, a number of medicine bottles, and a possible stethoscope.

Flea Glass or Simple Microscope from the Federal Reserve Site (Top and Side Views).
Photo by Nicole Doub, MAC Lab.

Documentary records indicate that the privy was located near the Southern Dispensary, a branch of the Baltimore General Dispensary. A dispensary supplied free medicine and health care for citizens who could not otherwise afford medical services. The Southern Dispensary, funded by charitable donations and a small appropriation from the city, was incorporated in 1847 and remained in operation until at least 1889 (Woods 1847; Register 1890). The dispensary offered both clinic and in-home health care (Polk 1888).

Simple Microscope Mounted on a Stand.
Similar instruments were illustrated as early as 1685 in Oculus Artificialis by Johann Zahn

With large populations living in close proximity, it was critical for cities to provide medical services. At various times during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, infectious diseases, including tuberculosis, cholera, yellow fever and smallpox, struck Baltimore (Mdmedicine 2017). Clinics like the Southern Dispensary played key roles in treating infected individuals and preventing widespread epidemics.

References

Bradbury, S.
1968 The Microscope Past and Present. Pergamon International Popular Science Series. Pergamon Press, Ltd., Oxford.

Mdmedicine
2017 Epidemics in Maryland. Website accessed January 13, 2017. http://mdhistoryonline.net/mdmedicine/index.cfm?action=epidemics

Polk, R. L.
1888 The Medical Directory and Register for Baltimore, Washington, Maryland and District of Columbia. R. L. Polk & Co., Baltimore.

Register
1890 Annual Reports of the Register of the City and the Commissioners of Finance. John Cox, Printer, Baltimore.

Woods, John W.
1847 The Act of Incorporation and By-laws, of the Southern Dispensary of Baltimore: Together with a List of Officers for 1847. Baltimore.

Zahn, Johann
1685 Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus Sive Telescopium. Würzburg, Germany.

Announcing FY2021 African American Historic Preservation Program Grant Recipients!

By Charlotte Lake, Ph.D., Capital Grant and Loan Programs Administrator

We are pleased to announce this year’s African American Heritage Preservation Program (AAHPP) grant recipients! This is the tenth year of grants since the program’s launch, marking $10 million total in funding awarded to 128 grant projects. The Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture and the Maryland Historical Trust jointly administer this program to promote the preservation of Maryland’s African American heritage sites. Grants fund construction projects at important sites throughout the state. This year’s projects include museums, cemeteries, an interpretive memorial, a historic lodge, community centers, and a historic school. Read more about our newly funded AAHPP grant projects below.

Project: Laurel Cemetery – Baltimore City ($88,000) | Sponsor: Laurel Cemetery Memorial Project, Inc.

Incorporated in 1852 as Baltimore’s first nondenominational cemetery for African Americans, Laurel Cemetery became known as one of the most beautiful and prominent African American cemeteries in the city. Descendants attempted to purchase the cemetery, but the owner prevailed against their legal challenges and leveled the cemetery for development in 1958. As a result, much of the cemetery currently lies beneath the parking lot of the Belair-Edison Crossing Shopping Center. Grant funds will support repairs to the retaining wall and construction of a pathway with interpretive signage in the unpaved portion of the cemetery, where recent archaeological investigations have identified undisturbed burials.

Project: Historic Oliver Community Firehouse – Baltimore City ($100,000) | Sponsor: African American Fire Fighters Historical Society, Inc.

Baltimore’s African American Fire Fighters Historical Society will use grant funds to acquire the historic firehouse, Truck House #5, through the City’s Vacants to Value program. The overall project will rehabilitate the building and convert it into the International Black Fire Fighters Museum & Safety Education Center.

Project: African American Heritage Center – Frederick, Frederick County ($100,000) | Sponsor: The African American Resources-Cultural and Heritage Society Incorporated

Grant funds will support the creation of a new center for African American heritage within a commercial space inside a modern parking garage. The project will reconfigure the commercial space and add accessibility improvements so that it can be used for exhibits, collections, and public programs to share Frederick County’s African American heritage and present this history within a broader regional and national context.

Carver School, photo courtesy of City of Cumberland

Project: Carver School – Cumberland, Allegany County ($100,000) | Sponsor: Mayor and City Council of Cumberland

Built in 1921 to accommodate the growing African American population of Cumberland, Carver School (previously known as Cumberland High School and the Frederick Street School) soon attracted students from outside Allegany County, including attendees from nearby areas of West Virginia. The school was renamed in 1941, when Principal Bracey held an election and students voted to name the school after Dr. George Washington Carver, who consented by letter to having the school named after him. The grant will fund necessary repairs to the building so that it can be rehabilitated for community use.

Project: Diggs-Johnson Museum – Granite, Baltimore County ($100,000) | Sponsor: Friends of Historical Cherry Hill A.U.M.P., Inc.

The Cherry Hill African United Methodist Church, now known as the Diggs-Johnson Museum, was built in the late 19th century, and functioned as a church through the 1970s before its conversion to a museum in the 1990s. The museum documents the history of the African American community of Baltimore County, and in particular the enslaved and free African Americans of Granite, many of whom worked the area’s granite quarries. The grant project will fund repairs to the church’s foundation and grave markers in its burial yard.

Kennedy Farmhouse, photo courtesy of John Brown Historical Foundation

Project: Kennedy Farm / John Brown Raid Headquarters – Sharpsburg, Washington County ($99,000) | Sponsor: John Brown Historical Foundation, Inc.

This grant will fund repairs to the timber and chinking of the Kennedy Farmhouse, a log building used as the headquarters by John Brown and his band in planning their famous raid on Harper’s Ferry. While the raid was planned, the farmhouse also served as living quarters for the five African American members of the band:  Dangerfield Newby; Lewis Leary; Shields Green; John Copeland, Jr; and Osborn Anderson. The raid on Harper’s Ferry is considered a pivotal moment in the lead-up to the American Civil War.

Project: Galesville Community Center – Galesville, Anne Arundel County ($45,000) | Sponsor: Galesville Community Center Organization, Inc.

Of the fifteen schools in Anne Arundel County built using money provided by the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which supported the establishment of African American schools throughout the southern United States, only six survive today. The grant project will fund repairs to the roof, siding, and windows of the Galesville Rosenwald School, built in 1929, which now serves as a vibrant community center.

Howard House, photo courtesy of Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Project: Howard House – Brookeville, Montgomery County ($100,000) | Sponsor: Department of Natural Resources – Maryland Park Service

The Howard House, currently in ruins, is the last intact building associated with Enoch George Howard. Born enslaved, George Howard purchased his freedom and eventually became a prosperous landowner, donating land to establish Howard Chapel and a community school. The grant project will restore the stone house’s exterior to its original appearance for interpretive use.

Project: Bazzel Church – Cambridge, Dorchester County ($100,000) | Sponsor: Good Shepherd Association

In 1911, the Bazzel Church was either built on or moved to its current site, where the original 1876 chapel stood before it burned down. The church, located in Bucktown, is best known for its association with Harriet Tubman, whose family members reportedly worshipped at the original church building. Initial stabilization of the church was completed in the summer of 2020, and the grant will fund the next phase of repairs, eventually leading to the rehabilitation of the building for use as an interpretive center.

Project: Mt. Zoar AME Church – Conowingo, Cecil County ($32,000) | Sponsor: Mount Zoar African Methodist Episcopal Church

Mt. Zoar African Methodist Episcopal Church was built in 1881 and the earliest known burial in the adjacent cemetery dates to 1848. Over 30 veterans are buried in the cemetery, including soldiers whose graves are marked with Grand Army of the Republic flag holders. The grant project will fund repairs to the cemetery and grave markers.

Prince Georges African-American Museum & Cultural Center, photo courtesy of Prince George’s African-American Museum & Cultural Center at North Brentwood, Inc.

Project: Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center – North Brentwood, Prince George’s County ($20,000) | Sponsor: Prince George’s African-American Museum and Cultural Center at North Brentwood, Inc.

Through exhibitions and educational programs, the Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center shares the county’s untold stories of African Americans. The grant-funded pre-development project will involve the design of facility renovations and an addition to provide support space and affordable housing space for African American artists.

Project: Millard Tydings Memorial Park – Havre de Grace, Harford County ($25,000) | Sponsor: The Sgt. Alfred B. Hilton Memorial Fund, Inc.

Established as Bayside Park in the late 1800s, Millard Tydings Memorial Park includes recreational amenities as well as memorials to those who served in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Grant funds will help construct a new monument dedicated to Sergeant Alfred B. Hilton, Harford County’s only recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. The monument will include permanent interpretive material about Sgt. Hilton and the role of his U.S. Colored Troops regiment in the Civil War.

Project: Union of Brothers and Sisters of Fords Asbury Lodge No. 1 – White Marsh, Baltimore County ($91,000) | Sponsor: The Union of Brothers and Sisters of Fords Asbury, Inc.

In 1874, Dr. Walter T. Allender constructed and donated this building to the Baltimore County School Commissioners for use as an African American School, initially known as Colored School 2, District 11. The Union of Brothers and Sisters of Ford’s Asbury Lodge No. 1, an African American benevolent society, held monthly meetings on the second floor of the school building until 1922, when Baltimore County Public Schools donated it to the lodge. The grant project will fund repairs and accessibility improvements that allow the building to be used by the public again.

If you are planning to apply for funding for an AAHPP project, the FY2022 grant round will begin in the spring of 2021, with workshops in April and applications due July 1. For more information about AAHPP, please visit our website or contact Charlotte Lake, Capital Grant and Loan Programs Administrator, at charlotte.lake@maryland.gov.

The Civil Rights Movement, Segregation, & Slavery in Maryland: A (Brief) Reading List

By Lara Westwood, Librarian

This past week, protests occurred in all fifty states and across the globe to fight against racism, inequality, and police brutality in the United States in the wake of the senseless deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, among many others. For those looking to learn more about the historical context for these events, here is a short reading list on the civil rights movement, segregation, and slavery in Maryland. 

Here Lies Jim Crow: Civil Rights in Maryland by C. Fraser Smith
Here Lies Jim Crow: Civil Rights in Maryland by C. Fraser Smith

Ancestors of Worthy Life: Plantation Slavery and Black Heritage at Mount Clare by Teresa S Moyer & Paul A Shackel, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2015

Baltimore Revisited: Stories of Inequality and Resistance in a U.S. City by P. Nicole King, Kate Drabinski, Joshua Clark Davis, et al., New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2019

Civil War on Race Street: the Civil Rights Movement in Cambridge, Maryland by Peter B Levy, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004

Here Lies Jim Crow: Civil Rights in Maryland by C. Fraser Smith, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012

John Brown to James Brown: the Little Farm Where Liberty Budded, Blossomed and Boogied by Ed Maliskas, Hagerstown, Maryland: Hamilton Run Press, 2016

Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City by Antero Pietila, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Inc., 2012

Road to Jim Crow: the African American Struggle on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, 1860-1915 by C. Christopher Brown, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016

Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore by Seth Rockman, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, ©2009

Seeking Freedom: a History of the Underground Railroad in Howard County, Maryland by Paulina C Moss, Levirn Hill, Howard County Center of African American Culture et al, Columbia, Md.: Howard County Center of African American Culture, 2002

This list is by no means exhaustive but a starting point for those seeking more information. These books can be found at your local library or favorite independent bookstore. Let us know your recommendations in the comments section!

Researching Identity through History and Place

By Karen Yee, University of Maryland Graduate Student

Chinatowns have always held a special place in my heart because the visits were the only time my parents would talk about our heritage. Every year without fail, my family would travel all the way to New York City’s Manhattan Chinatown to celebrate the Qingming Festival, also known as Tomb Sweeping Day in English, which falls on April 4 or 5. It’s a time to remember ancestors by tomb sweeping and lighting incense as a sign of respect to our ancestors. When I was 13, my grand-uncle made the trip with us. I still remember when he looked around at the cemetery and quietly said: “They discriminated against us, that’s why all these gravestones are just slabs of stone.” I did not understand what he meant until years later, when I began studying about Asian American history as a graduate student at the University of Maryland.

The author, Karen Yee.

When I began my graduate research to learn about Baltimore City’s Chinatown for the Maryland Historical Trust this semester, I started with limited knowledge of Asian American history. It was not taught in public school or an option while I was in college. When I first studied the general history of Chinese immigration into the United States as part of this project, I was shocked to find that the earliest wave of Chinese immigration from the mid-1850’s had come from the Guangdong Providence – even more surprisingly, it was primarily in the Taishan district – where my family had roots. I knew at the very least that this was where my father’s side of the family grew up, and it was my own dialect that I spoke with my grandmother. As I delved deeper, I immediately reported my new facts to my father, who told me how the history connected to my own family tree. After researching the general history of Chinese Americans, I looked toward Baltimore’s Chinese immigrant history. Before I began this project, I was not even aware there was a Chinatown in Baltimore.

Park Avenue in Baltimore. Photo courtesy of the author.

For hundreds of years, Baltimore enjoyed a fairly positive trading relationship with China. Baltimore’s Canton neighborhood, for example, is named after Canton, China. John O’Donnell purchased property in what is now known as Canton to build a plantation in the late 18th century. He had traded with China at the port of Canton because it was the only Chinese port opened to Western trade at the time. Over the years, Chinese prime ministers, major trade groups, and student groups have visited Baltimore for a variety of reasons.  Leslie Chin’s History of Chinese Americans in Baltimore (1976) shows the ways Chinese immigrants have impacted the urban landscape through their laundries, restaurants, import stores, and joss houses (places of worship of Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, or Chinese Folk religion) in Baltimore’s Old Chinatown. Baltimore’s Chinatown held a majority percentage of the total Chinese population in Maryland between 1870 and 1960, after which it began to decline due to suburban sprawl and the need for more space to accommodate growing families into areas such as Rockville. Despite legislation such as the Page Act of 1875 (the first restrictive federal immigration law in the United States, which prevented entry of Chinese women) and Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (which banned the entry of Chinese men as well), the Chinese population in Baltimore continued to grow in size. This growth resulted either from people exploiting loopholes in the legislation or migration of already established immigrants from other states. 

Charm City Night Market in Baltimore. Photo courtesy of the author.

Chinatowns were developed out of the need for Chinese immigrants to seek safe havens from racial discrimination, providing a place where residents could trade and practice traditions within a familiar context. Most Chinatowns were composed of men due to the restrictive immigration legislation in the late 19th century. Family groups and associations such as the Chinese Benevolent Association also gave political and social help to those in need. In Baltimore, some churches and religious/faith institutions extended a hand in helping immigrants adjust to life in the United States.

Life in Baltimore’s old Chinatown was not really any different from other city neighborhoods except for the context of anti-Chinese sentiment and discrimination. There were community celebrations such as the Chinese New Year, funerals, and other activities. Chinese immigrants did interact with the non-Chinese local community through their trade businesses, laundries, and restaurants. Although old Chinatown no longer stands in its entirety, revitalization efforts in the area began in 2018 with the Charm City Night Market, which took place in the area. Hopefully in the future, the neighborhood will return back to its former glory — not as a Chinatown, but as a place where all Asians, Pacific Islanders, and others can celebrate their history and heritage through historic sites and cultural resources. This motivates me to continue my research on the history and heritage of Chinese Americans in Baltimore and in Maryland.

As I wrap up my research work with MHT this month, I find it fitting that May is both Asian Pacific American Heritage and Preservation Month. This project provided an opportunity to preserve a part of my own and others’ family history. It also shed light into my own personal identity. I had grown up understanding that I was Chinese American, but I did not understand what it meant to be a Chinese American in the United States. My history in the United States does not start at the beginning of my birth, but in the struggles of those who had come before me and worked hard to achieve their goals and rights. It took me eleven years to begin to understand what my grand-uncle had said that day. As I and others visit the tombs of our ancestors, I hope that we will all continue to seek out our own histories to preserve our stories and places for future generations to learn and explore. Old Chinatown in Baltimore may be changed, but its history and stories wait patiently to be discovered and shared.

Announcing FY2020 AAHPP grant recipients!

We are pleased to announce the FY2020 African American Heritage Preservation Program (AAHPP) grant recipients! Twelve projects were awarded funding for preservation projects throughout the state. Jointly administered by the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture and the Maryland Historical Trust, the AAHPP provides capital funds to assist in the preservation of buildings, sites, or communities of historical and cultural importance to the African American experience in Maryland. The Commission and MHT are excited to support these projects, which include unique sites such as a World War II memorial park, an early 20th century bowling alley, a historic swimming pool, and tunnels that were part of the Underground Railroad.  Read more about all our newly funded projects below.

If you are planning to apply for funding for a project, the FY2021 grant round will begin in the spring of 2020, with workshops in April and applications due in July. For more information about the AAHPP, please contact Charlotte Lake, Capital Grant and Loan Program Administrator, at charlotte.lake@maryland.gov. For information about organizations receiving grants, please contact the institutions directly.

Project: Sotterley Plantation: Slave Cabin – Hollywood, St. Mary’s County ($78,000) Sponsor: Historic Sotterley, Inc.

Sotterley Plantation is a 1703 Tidewater plantation with more than 20 original buildings still standing. After its restoration, the 1830s slave cabin was dedicated to Agnes Kane Callum, a Baltimore resident whose great-grandfather was born enslaved at Sotterley, and who was instrumental in telling the story of Sotterley’s enslaved community. The grant project will include repairs to the cabin as well as accessibility improvements to the paths leading to it.

Project: Fairmount Heights World War II Monument –Prince George’s County ($12,250) Sponsor: Town of Fairmount Heights

The Fairmount Heights World War II Monument was built in 1946 to honor local citizens who served in the armed forces during World War II. The grant project will include repairs to the monument and site improvements within the park.

Project: Liberty Grace Church of God: Bowling Alley – Baltimore City ($100,000) Sponsor: Liberty Grace Church of God, Inc.

Liberty Grace Church of God was built in 1922 and has an early 20th century bowling alley in its basement. This historic bowling alley will be restored to working order. Read more about the bowling alley in our earlier blog post!

Project: Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church – Cambridge, Dorchester County ($100,000) Sponsor: Eastern Shore Network for Change, Inc.

The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was constructed in 1903 and is the oldest African American church still standing in Cambridge. This grant will fund structural repairs to the church, as well as repairs to windows and doors.

Project: Emmanuel Episcopal Church: Tunnels – Cumberland, Allegany County ($100,000) Sponsor: Emmanuel Episcopal Parish Incorporated

Emmanuel Episcopal Church was built atop the remains of Fort Cumberland, forming a series of tunnels beneath the church that eventually came to be used as shelter by African Americans escaping slavery on the Underground Railroad. Local oral traditions describe a quilt panel with a cross on a hill representing Emmanuel Episcopal Church as a stop on the road to freedom. This project will improve lighting and ventilation in the tunnels, as well as improve accessibility for visitors touring the tunnels.

Project: Warren Historic Site: Warren United Methodist Church and Martinsburg Negro School – Dickerson, Montgomery County ($100,000) Sponsor: Warren Historic Site Committee, Inc.

The Warren Historic Site is likely the last in Maryland where the traditional triad of buildings constructed in most post-Emancipation African American communities – the church, school, and lodge hall – still exist. The grant project will include roof and foundation repairs on the church, as well as roof, foundation, and floor repairs on the school.

Project: McConchie One-Room School – La Plata, Charles County ($99,000) Sponsor: Charles County Fair, Inc.

The McConchie School was constructed around 1912 to serve African American children in central Charles County. The school was closed in 1952, was converted to a residence, and had been abandoned by 1980. The Charles County Fair purchased and moved the building to the fairgrounds in 1990. The grant project will include structural repairs so that the school can continue to be used as a museum.

Project: Zion United Methodist Church – Federalsburg, Caroline County ($100,000) Sponsor: Zion ME Church

Zion Methodist Episcopal Church was built in 1931 and features stained glass windows and ornamental woodwork on its tower. The grant will fund accessibility and drainage improvements to the site, as well as structural repairs to the building.

Project: Robert W. Johnson Community Center: Swimming Pool – Hagerstown, Washington County ($100,000) Sponsor: Robert W Johnson Community Center, Inc.

In 1959, the North Street Swimming Pool was constructed as part of the Robert W. Johnson Community Center in Hagerstown’s Jonathan Street Neighborhood. It was the only pool in the city where African Americans could swim, and the pool itself is relatively unchanged since it was built. The grant project will repair the swimming pool so that it can be returned to community use.

Project: Ellsworth Cemetery – Westminster, Carroll County ($65,000) Sponsor: Community Foundation of Carroll County, Incorporated

Six African American Union Army veterans established the Ellsworth Cemetery in 1876 to provide a burial place for the African American residents of Westminster. The grant project will include mapping of the cemetery and conservation of grave markers.

Project: Asbury M.E. Church – Easton, Talbot County ($100,000) Sponsor: Historic Easton, Incorporated

Asbury M.E. Church was dedicated by Frederick Douglass in 1878. The church also served as a temporary high school for Black students in the 1930s and is now both an active church and a community center. Grant funding will be used to make structural repairs and accessibility upgrades to the fellowship hall within the church.

Project: Fruitland Community Center, Wicomico County ($44,000) Sponsor: Fruitland Community Center, Inc.

In 1912 local community members built the Morris Street Colored School, now known as the Fruitland Community Center, for Wicomico County’s African American children. The building is still used for educational purposes, with summer and after school programs for children as well as an archive. The grant project will include roof replacement, accessibility improvements, and upgrades to the electrical and mechanical systems of the building.

Maryland in Concert

By Lara Westwood, Librarian, Maryland Historical Trust

Woodstock nearly came to Maryland this summer. Organizers of the 50th anniversary celebration of the legendary music festival of August 15th through 18th, 1969 attempted to move the event from Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in New York to Merriweather Post Pavilion in Howard County in a last ditch effort to save the show. But plans never quite came together. Several of the big name acts, including Miley Cyrus and Jay-Z, dropped out, and the show was canceled. Even without hosting the legendary Woodstock, Maryland has a rich musical history, and many concert venues, theaters, and related structures are listed on the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties

Knabe opened this piano factory in 1861. After the company moved production out of state, the factory was purchased by Maryland Baking Company and its subsidiaries.

Music has always been a vital part of culture in Maryland. Each Native American tribe that settled the Chesapeake Bay area had its own musical style and rituals. Enslaved people and free Africans brought their native traditions to the colony which spurred the development of new styles and genres. Colonial elites often hosted performances in the drawing rooms of their plantations, while the popular music, such as ballads and dance music, could be heard in the taverns. Francis Scott Key’s poem, “The Defense of Fort McHenry”–today called “The Star-Spangled Banner” and arguably Maryland’s most famous contribution to American music history–became popular after it was set to a well-known drinking tune. As the colony developed, concert halls and theaters were opened and musical social clubs were formed in the cities and larger towns.

The Peabody Institute is located near the Washington Monument in Baltimore.

By the mid-1800s and into the 1900s, Maryland had developed a strong musical culture. Baltimore saw several notable musical institutions established during this time. In the 1830s, William Knabe, a German immigrant, opened his piano repair and sales company. In partnership with Henry Gaehle, the company began manufacturing square, upright, and grand pianos. The partnership eventually ended. By 1861, Knabe built a new, larger factory on Eutaw Street after two of his other manufacturing locations burned and to accommodate the business’ growth. The factory operated until 1929 when new owners moved production to New York state. The Peabody Institute was founded in 1857. The city of Baltimore opened an academy of music as well as a free library and gallery of art in the Mount Vernon neighborhood with $300,000 donated by businessman and philanthropist George Peabody. One of the country’s best music schools, it became part of Johns Hopkins University in 1977. The Music Hall on Mount Royal Avenue opened in 1894 to much fanfare as the city had been without a major performance venue after the Concordia Opera House burned down. The first concert season promised to be of the “finest class” and promised to attract visitors to the city.[1] The Boston Symphony Orchestra, accompanied by several renowned opera singers, including soprano Nellie Melba, kicked off the inaugural season. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra also regularly played concerts at the venue. The hall was purpose-built as a concert venue, designed for acoustic quality, but also hosted other theatrical events and was available for balls and banquets. Otto Kahn, an investment banker and patron of the arts, purchased the hall in 1909 and changed the name to the Lyric Theatre. The theater changed hands several times and was nearly torn down in 1903 to make way for a garage. The theater has undergone extensive renovations over the years, and is now known as the Patricia & Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at The Lyric.

The exterior of the Lyric has undergone extensive renovations. Pictured here is the Maryland Avenue facade in 1984. 
The Lyric’s stage area remains largely unchanged.

Maryland also boasted several stops on what would become known as the Chitlin’ Circuit. In the era of segregation and Jim Crow laws, African American performers often played in venues where they would otherwise be barred from patronizing. The theaters and other performance spaces on the circuit, on the other hand, welcomed both black artists and audiences. Arthur Wilmer converted a Prince George’s County tobacco farm into one of the premier venues on the circuit. Wilmer’s Park in Brandywine hosted the likes of Patti LaBelle, Chuck Berry, James Brown, and Sam Cooke. Wilmer booked many famous artists before their careers took off. The park, which opened in the early 1950s, featured a dancehall, motel, restaurant, picnicking grounds, and ball fields. Music events were held at the park until it closed in the 1990s and has since fallen into disrepair. The Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World, more commonly known as the Black Elks, operated a similar venue at John Brown’s headquarters, also called Kennedy Farm in Sharpsburg, Washington County. Abolitionist John Brown orchestrated his raid on the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry from the farm in October of 1859. He and his followers stockpiled weapons at the farm in the months leading up to the raid. Almost 100 years later, the African American fraternal organization purchased it with the intent of establishing a national headquarters complete with a youth center, retirement home, tennis courts, and other amenities, as well as a national shrine and museum to honor Brown. It became a popular weekend destination for black residents of western Maryland and West Virginia and attracted many famous artists to play at the dancehall. James Brown performed the last concert there in 1966, just before the camp closed and the Elks sold the property. 

Since it closed in 1999, Wilmer’s Park has fallen into disrepair. The main building and restaurant can be seen here.
An interior view of the main hall at Wilmer’s Park showcases a mural commemorating building’s musical legacy.

The Baltimore Civic Center, now known as Royal Farms Arena, has hosted several historic concerts since it opened in 1962. The futuristic, Googie-style arena was built in an effort to revitalize the city’s downtown and served as a multi-purpose entertainment space. The Baltimore Bullets and Clippers called the Civic Center home court and ice, respectively, during the 1960s and early 1970s, and the Ringling Brothers Circus regularly performed there. Martin Luther King, Jr. also gave speeches at the Center in 1963 and 1966. The 1964 Beatles concerts cemented the venue in music history. The band played two shows on September 13 to a packed house. Beatlemania was at full froth. A large contingent of Baltimore City police officers had to be stationed outside the band’s hotel before the show. Two female fans apparently unsuccessfully tried to meet the Fab Four by mailing themselves to the arena in boxes marked “fan mail” before the show. Once the band took the stage, even greater pandemonium ensued. The Baltimore Sun described the scene at one of the shows: “The enormous cavern of the building had become a vibrant, pulsating shrine with waves of shrieking adulation that burst with concussive force.”[2] Several concert-goers had to be treated for “hysterics” and fainting, according to the same article. A few years later, a Led Zeppelin appearance nearly caused a riot when 200 people without tickets to the show attempted to rush the doors of the arena. Ten people were arrested as a result. This and other raucous rock concerts led the city to attempt to limit shows that would “[appeal] to young people” to afternoons and require promoters to hire more security.[3] The evening concert ban was eventually lifted, and the venue continues to host a wide variety of events every year. 

The house at Kennedy Farm, or John Brown’s Headquarters, pictured before extensive renovations were undertaken to return the structure to its original form.

Maryland’s musical legacy continues to grow. More concert venues are being studied for their architectural and historical significance, and notable concert events will assuredly continue to be held across the state. 

Large billboards now line the exterior of the Baltimore Civic Center or Royal Farms Arena, but little else has been changed over the years. 

Sources:

[1] “The Music Hall.” Baltimore Sun, Oct. 29, 1894: p. 4. 

[2] Levine, Richard H. “Thousands See Beatles Shake Civic Center”. Baltimore Sun, Sept. 14, 1964, p. 38.

[3] O’Donnell, Jr., John B. “Rock Shows To Be Limited To Afternoon.” Baltimore Sun, May 7, 1970: p. C22.

“Baltimore Symphony.” Baltimore Sun, Oct. 5, 1898.

Borha, Imade. “John Brown To James Brown.” The Frederick News Post, Dec. 31,  2016. 

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