About the exhibition

If those who know of West Baltimore’s great history encourage others to build upon its legacy, the story of West Baltimore’s beauty will always outshine its blight.

It is essential to understand that people are and have always been people-products of circumstance and core values that echo the needs of their time. Beauty Beneath the Blight is an interactive online exhibition for all ages. Each tool provided on this website is intended to communicate the values that upheld the West Baltimore community, and the stories of those who kept the community whole.

In this project the Urban Arts Leadership Cohort 2020 Field Team has gathered the stories of several individuals whose life experiences represent the essence and spirit of West Baltimore between the start of World War II and the 1968 riots after the death of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. :

  • Mrs. Susan T. King
  • Mr. Ronald Bailey
  • Mrs. Peggy Jackson
  • Ms. Tasha Collins-Faty
  • Mr. George “Blue” Kellam
  • Mr. Jae Boston
  • Mrs. Melosong Edwards
  • Ms. Barbra Hunter
  • Ms. Brenda Brown

Thank you to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and the National Endowment for the Arts. The Urban Arts Leadership Field-school is a program of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance (GBCA) and is directed by GBCA's Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, Kibibi Ajanku, and is coordinated by Camila Bryce-Laporte . Thank you to all of our amazing interviewees and their willingness to share their stories during this turbulent time.

Collective Responsibility

Although these individuals share different life paths and experiences, they each speak to the core values that pushed them on a journey that led them beyond themselves. The most prominent of these core values was one that the UAL Field Team describes as “collective responsibility.” Collective responsibility can be defined as an approach to success that is based upon the success of a community versus the success of one or a few individuals.

The community of West Baltimore embodied collective responsibility through their daily existence. Whether in work or in play, their actions were made with the understanding that the effects their decisions impressed upon those outside of their communities would always be applied to those within their communities. Success was based on whether or not individuals could contribute to fulfilling the needs of their loved ones.

Defining Elite

Those who were considered the Black Elite were not always considered elite due to material wealth, but for their amazing capacity to uplift the community within West Baltimore. West Baltimore created and fiercely protected its own standard of excellence. That standard of excellence guided these individuals through times of unprecedented uncertainty and enabled the building of community that produced leaders not only in the city of Baltimore, but around the nation. 

Some of these leaders included famous icons such as Thurgood Marshall and Elijah Cummings, and unsung history makers such as Victorine Adams ( the first Black woman to serve on Baltimore City Council) and Blanche Calloway (the first woman to conduct a jazz orchestra).

West Baltimore was also the home of several major Civil Rights Organizations such as the National Council of Negro Women, and the Colored Women's Democratic Campaign Committee. These committees were responsible for  championing initiatives for the advancement of making historic strives for Black women's voter rights. The Baltimore Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) provided essential leaders and strategies to the overall national organization's plans of legal Civil Rights reform. The city was also the birthplace of historic Black-led journalism institutions such as the Afro American Newspaper, the longest running Black newspaper in the United States. 

As our interviewees regularly stated, the achievements of Baltimore’s Black middle class led to the enhancement of a greater cause of other than one’s own individual wants.

The Beauty Never Left

The beauty of West Baltimore between WWII and the 1968 riots after the death of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., never left West Baltimore.

Each interviewee acknowledged that blight forced people to turn to individualism as a core value rather than collective responsibility.

Blight is the neglect of a community. In West Baltimore this is evidenced by abandoned row homes and high concentrations of poverty. Blight is imposed by structural racism, which comprises: 

Interpersonal racism-where individual actions directly support racism; cultural racism-the devaluing of Black culture; and institutional racism- where laws policies and practices disproportionately affect people of color.  

In West Baltimore specifically, structural racism frequently revealed itself through inequitable public education, a continuous deprivation of resources, and redlining (the discriminatory practice by which financial institutions refuse or limit loans, mortgages, insurance, etc., within specific geographic areas). 

Too often, the narrative of structural racism in the United States is twisted in favor of those who perpetuate and directly benefit from it. Many state that blight is solely attributed to the actions of those who reside within blighted areas. This narrative is one that does not account for external factors responsible for West Baltimore’s blight.

When telling this story we must connect the beauty of West Baltimore’s past to the beauty of its present. West Baltimore has been and will always be a mecca for innovation, social change, and collective responsibility. If those who know of West Baltimore’s great history encourage others to build upon its legacy, the story of West Baltimore’s beauty will always outshine its blight.