This past weekend the show Rights and Wrongs: Citizenship, Belonging, and the Vote opened at The Peale at Carroll Mansion in Baltimore. Included in the show is my drawing about Preston Gardens. I wanted to write a post talking about my process of making this piece and give more details on what I learned while doing my research.
The exhibition is curated by Lauren Francis Adams, who is both an artist and educator based in Baltimore. She approached me with the idea for the show in early 2019. She applied for grants so that she could commission Baltimore artists to create new work related to the history of voting rights. I was one of the artists chosen, along with McKinley Wallace III and Antonio McAfee. Grants were provided by the Maryland State Arts Council and the Awesome Foundation.
The project was supposed to involve physical research done at the city or state archives. With COVID a factor, that research had to become internet based. As someone who has never made a piece based off of archive research, I reached out to several folks to ask for assistance. I received a lot of help from local historian Eli Poussin of Baltimore Heritage as well as Savannah Wood. Savannah, who is an artist and cultural organizer, is currently creating infrastructure to increase access to the Afro-American Newspapers archives. She was a huge help when she pointed me to the Enoch Pratt libraries source of old newspapers that have been digitized and are searchable. Through the Pratt system I was able to read through both Afro-American Newspaper articles and The Sun articles written about Preston Gardens and Mayor James H. Preston. This became a focal point of my project.
Eli had pointed me to the Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries online collection of photographs by Lawrence Hall Fowler. I used a photograph that Fowler took in the early 1900s as a reference for my drawings. I really appreciate the efforts that archives take to digitize collections, not only does it help with preservation of history but also increases accessibility.
Why did I focus on Preston Gardens? Every visit to my Grandmother's house, which were often when I was a child, involved driving down St. Paul Street, right past this park. It is a familiar spot to me and when I read Antero Pietila's book Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City, I learned that the creation of the park required the demolition of a prominent Black district. I had wanted to learn more about this and so when Lauren contacted me about the exhibition opportunity, I knew that I wanted to focus on this piece of Baltimore history.
The Preston Gardens park was the vision of James H. Preston, who was mayor of Baltimore from 1911 to 1919. Preston was a proponent of segregation and he is considered a pioneer in using condemnation as means of acquiring land. In 1914 an ordinance was passed by the Baltimore City Council to acquire the buildings that would be demolished to build the park. The Black neighborhood that had existed there had been surrounded by white neighborhoods and the idea was that the park's creation would raise property values for those communities. Up until this point in time, segregation was not enforced in Baltimore. It is around this time that Baltimore began to use zoning and covenants to impose segregation, and the building of the Preston Gardens park could be considered the beginning of this effort.
I read through both original texts and essays to help paint a mental picture of the former neighborhood and the decisions that were made to remove it. The Afro-American Newspapers were an excellent source for understanding the vibrancy of the community that existed there. The newspaper itself had a headquarters right on St. Paul Street, and was forced to relocate when the park planning began. Also in the area was the Normal School, which exists today as Bowie State University, Maryland's oldest HBCU. Many lawyers had offices just blocks away from the court house and there are records of caterers, barbers, social clubs, and churches all throughout the area.
In an article written years after the park was built, the Afro-American newspaper states: “When you pass through the beautiful Preston Gardens, now almost the heart of Baltimore’s humming business section, you are passing through a section where some beautiful brown-skinned girls and chivalrous youth who glided across hardwood floors to the tune of the old-time waltz while proud matrons and fathers looked on.” I have drawn a shortened version of this quote at the bottom of one drawing.
When I read through The Sun newspaper, I was given a different perspective on the neighborhood. This newspaper was written by and for a white audience, and they used the words "disease-infected" to describe the area. A full quote, from an article discussing the financial steps taken to create the park, is “A considerable part of the money will be used, the Mayor stated, in ‘wiping out congested and disease-infected sections in different parts of the city, so as to provide small squares or breathing places, for the health and comfort of the neighborhood.’ ” The neighborhoods gaining this "comfort" are the surrounding white communities. I have included this quote at the bottom of the other drawing.
The contrast of perspectives could not be clearer and when it came time to decide how to turn my research into a drawing, these contradictory viewpoints became my focus. Using one of Fowler's photographs, of a block of houses on the former Courtland Street, I made two drawings that are meant to be as exactly the same as possible. At the bottom of each drawing I have included the quotes from The Sun and the Afro-American (with the Afro-American quote slightly shortened to fit the space). The manner in which these two drawings are displayed, back to back and not side by side, is intended to mirror the way in which one cannot simultaneously hold such contradictory viewpoints as those exemplified in the two quotes. I want to highlight how perspective shapes what we see. And I want to show that the perspective of those in power literally shapes the landscape that we all inhabit.
If you are in Baltimore, please stop by and visit the show. Masks are required. Soon there will be a virtual representation, so it can be viewed from the comfort of your home. There are many wonderful artists exhibiting: Stacey Kirby, Julia Kwon, Precious Lovell, JoAnne McFarland, Gina Gwen Palacios, Jason Patterson, and Sarah Paulsen.
Dates of Exhibition: October 17 - December 6, 2020
Location: The Peale at Carroll Mansion, 800 E. Lombard Street, Baltimore, MD
Saturdays and Sundays, 12-4pm, FREE