A few years ago, I invited a group of college students to take a short walking tour of the Lumbee Indian community of East Baltimore.
The Lumbees are native to North Carolina, but have been around Baltimore since at least the 1930s. My grandparents moved here in 1963 with their three children, including my mother. I was born here, and that makes me a first generation Baltimore Lumbee. I grew up to be a community visual artist and a folklorist. I am currently a doctoral student at the University of Maryland College Park, where I am completing my thesis on the evolution of the Lumbee’s relationship with the Baltimore neighborhood where they settled.
I had run such tours informally several times before and had developed a familiar itinerary and narrative along the way: South Broadway Baptist Church, the Baltimore American Indian Center, the Vera Shank Daycare, and the Native American Senior Building. Citizens.
This time, an elder from the community came with us. Of course, I handed over the responsibility of leading the tour to him.
We started on my usual route but, to my surprise, she stopped us just outside the South Broadway Baptist Church to talk about an Indian jewelry store that was once next door. It was news to me. I didn’t remember the store as it was gone before my time.
I started to wonder: what else do I not know about the places and spaces that the people of Lumbee once had here?
Drawing on the memories of our elders, annals from local newspapers and other archival material, I am now mapping and reconstructing the historic Lumbee Indian community of East Baltimore.
With the redevelopment of the district and the displacement of the population of Lumbee, I see this as an urgent project of reconquest – of history, of space and of belonging.
The birth of the Baltimore “reserve”
The Lumbee tribe of North Carolina is the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River and the ninth in the United States.
Our homeland is in Southeastern North Carolina, with members residing primarily in Robeson, Hoke, Cumberland, and Scotland counties. We take our name from the Lumbee River which winds through tribal territory, which is predominantly rural and characterized by pine trees, farmland and swamps.
After World War II, thousands of Lumbee Indians migrated from North Carolina to Baltimore in search of jobs and a better quality of life. They settled on the east side of the city, in an area that connects the neighborhoods of Upper Fells Point and Washington Hill, 64 blocks consisting mostly of brick townhouses with marble steps.
To many newcomers to Lumbee, the buildings all looked the same. It was a world apart from the farmhouses, tobacco barns, home fields and swamps.
In this cityscape, the people of Lumbee stood out – neither looking like the Indians on television, nor perfectly integrated with any of the races or ethnicities already living in Baltimore.
Today, most Baltimoreans would be surprised to learn that the area was once so densely populated by Indians that it was known as the “reservation.” An anthropologist who did field research in the community during its heyday wrote that it was “perhaps the largest group of Indians from the same tribe in an urban American area.”
The community of Lumbee has grown steadily over the years, so my own generation has never known “the reserve” as such. But even in our own lifetimes – and especially over the past 15 years – we’ve seen Lumbee’s population in the city decline sharply. The majority of our people have moved to Baltimore County and beyond. Others returned to North Carolina.
The old district is now rapidly redeveloped. The historic buildings have been renovated. New luxury apartments abound. With the closure and sale of the former Vera Shank Daycare and Native American Senior Citizens building, the only real estate the Baltimore Indian Center owns is the building it occupies. The other seniors are now between 70 and 80 years old.
I know I got to this job at a crucial time.
The neighborhood as it once was
In order to learn more about the historic community, I first went to see the elders.
I was completely stunned by what I learned. I knew the places I have already mentioned, as well as some legendary bars. But they spoke of other restaurants, shops, more churches, more bars, investment property and even a dance hall that all belonged to the Lumbee community or were frequented.
Almost all of the sites that have been described to me by the ancients have been reused several times since the 1950s, if not demolished and completely erased from the landscape. Entire city blocks have disappeared.
How, then, could I even begin to identify where things were?
This question caused a wave of searches and looting in many local institutional archives looking for clues that would help me to rebuild “the reserve”.
At the downtown branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, I was able to leaf through many historical newspaper clippings about the community and the early efforts of the Baltimore American Indian Center, founded in 1968 as the “American Indian Study Center “. I even had original copies of the first American Indian Study Center newsletters, sent directly from the center to the library.
I took a cartography course at the Eisenhower Library at Johns Hopkins University, which took me to visit the Baltimore City Archives, where I was able to manipulate original Sanborn maps. These maps provide extremely detailed aerial views of the neighborhood, including footprints of buildings that no longer exist.
Later, at the Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation of the Baltimore City Planning Department, I was delighted to find actual street-level photographs of many buildings, which, ironically, have been documented at the continuation of urban renewal.
In the Hornbake Library at the University of Maryland College Park, I was able to consult several volumes of the Polk Baltimore city directories. I had assumed that these were only old phone books. Instead, these volumes detail the individuals and businesses who have occupied every building in Baltimore, street by street, block by block, in any given year. Not only was I able to confirm the addresses of community sites that the elders had described, but in many cases I was also able to see where they themselves had lived.
The Hornbake Library is also home to the Baltimore News US Photographic Archive, where I found portraits of community legends. There was Elizabeth Locklear, Herbert Locklear and Rosie Hunt – all of the founders of the Center. There was Clyde Oxendine, a boxer and the bouncer of the infamous Volcano, the meanest of Indian bars. And in the first folder of unprocessed photos I opened, I found, of all, Alme Jones, my fiancé’s maternal grandmother.
Preserving the past for future generations
So far we have mapped 27 sites owned or frequented by Lumbee in and around the neighborhood.
Having identified the materials of these many distant institutional archives, it seems imperative to constitute a new collection so that these treasures can coexist, alongside personal archival documents that would never have been accessible to an outside researcher. Our community needs easy access to its history.
Naturally, the Baltimore American Indian Center is the main repository for this new collection. Another is the special collections at UMBC’s Albin O. Kuhn Library. This amazing, publicly available resource is already home to the Maryland Folklife Archives and the research of several Maryland folklorists. It will also one day house my research.
The younger generations of Lumbee should be able to see and know that the history of our people in Baltimore is much deeper and broader than it seems.
All cities are steeped in history. Whether we realize it or not, we are still following in the footsteps of those who came before us.
As Baltimore’s neighborhoods continue to change, its people would do well to realize that the people of Lumbee have been here for a long time – and we are still here.