Tag: history

Pigtown Design: Baltimore Building Heritage? There’s an App for That

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As you might have figured out by now, I am interested in the “built environment” meaning buildings of all sorts, whether they be historical mansions or small cozy sheds. And I am always interested to learn about buildings that I see every day as I zoom by in my car.

In cooperation with the Baltimore Architecture Foundation where I serve on the Board, and some other local preservation groups, Baltimore Heritage has just launched a smart phone app called Explore Baltimore Heritage.Dozens of historic buildings around the city are pinned on this application, with a history of the building, some historic photographs, and perhaps a short narration featuring the stentorian tones of historian, Charlie Duff.

Want to Be a “Slave for a Day” at Towson Historical Site?

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Um. Okay. We know that local historical sites try to put on events that are both fun and educational during the summer months — you know, that sort of churn-your-own-butter activity that’s supposed to help kids connect with the past. But this one seems a little… misguided:   On July 8 at Towson’s Hampton Farm you can be a “Slave for a Day.” In an announcement event with an awkwardly jaunty tone, Hampton promises to let kids “[e]xperience what it may have been like being enslaved.  Work in the fields with actual hoes and scythes.  Carry buckets of water with a yoke on your shoulders!”

It’s that last exclamation point that really pushes it over the edge for me. Clearly Hampton is approaching this from an education-is-good! perspective. Their hearts are in the right place. They’ve enlisted the African Diaspora Ancestral Commemoration Institute to perform a ceremony to commemorate those who were enslaved at Hampton. An altar in the farm’s slave quarters will “pay homage to those who were in bondage,” and visitors are encouraged to bring names of their ancestors to place on the altar. And better to explore and interrogate the history of slavery than to ignore it, as so many of these graceful old mansion museums tend to do. (Take a tour of Oak Alley outside New Orleans  to see what I mean.)

Still, the inescapable and brutal fact of slavery was that it wasn’t for a day. No, “carry[ing] buckets of water with a yoke on your shoulders!” will be nothing like “what it may have been like to be enslaved.” Some things are too profound to playact, it seems to me.

Honoring Hopkins’ Black Heritage

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The son of a slave, Kelly Miller took a northbound train in 1880, with dreams of pursuing his fascination with math; in 1887, he became Johns Hopkins’ first black student. In 1970, Gail Williams-Glassner worked 25 hours a week, founded the school’s first cheerleading squad, and made history as one of Hopkins’ first black female undergraduates. In 2010, Wes Moore made his alma mater proud by penning a New York Times bestseller (oh, and becoming a Rhodes Scholar). In the century-plus in between, Johns Hopkins was shaped by many other black students, faculty, and staff, whose achievements and struggles often flew under the radar. Until now, that is.

Treasure Trove of Baltimore’s African-American History Now Online

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It took three years and nearly half a million dollars, but the ambitious archival project to document Baltimore’s historic and groundbreaking Afro-American newspaper is now online. The project, funded by the Mellon Foundation and conducted via Johns Hopkins, was no little effort. Over its 120 years covering local, state, and national news, the Afro-American compiled more than a million photographs, and over a hundred thousand boxes and files filled with clippings, images, and correspondence.

To sort it all out, the project enlisted the help of students, researchers, and interns from Johns Hopkins, Morgan State University, and the University of Maryland. They got to dig through the paper’s numerous primary source documents, some of them dating from the Afro‘s 1892 founding. (The paper is the oldest family-owned African American newspaper in the country.)

The project was a good example of Johns Hopkins putting its best foot forward — the university used its size and clout to spearhead a project that mattered to its neighborhood (the Afro is currently housed in Charles Village), its city, and the wider world. Plus, in collaborating with numerous other institutions, it proved that it can be a team player.

The work isn’t yet done; the next step will involve creating online exhibits on some of the archive’s most compelling material. But there’s plenty to check out now; visit the newly-launched website here.

An Introduction to Baltimore’s Urban Cosmography

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When you’re talking about the fourteenth century, cosmography is the science of mapping the universe — in other words, early attempts to describe both the known world and what lies outside it.  When much-revered writer/designer/futurist Buckminster Fuller used the term at the title for his final book, he was talking about the structures that underlay our politics, history, physics, economics, society, chemistry… and pretty much everything else. (He was a man of many interests.)

So, then, what might an introduction to Baltimore’s urban cosmography look like?  As presented by Jeremy Kargon, an architect and professor at Morgan State, it’ll probably involve a look at maps and charts — some of them very old — as a way to understand how Baltimore has come to be organized the way it is.  How did early Baltimoreans conceive of “urban planning”? How did political culture from a hundred years ago shape the streetscape we know today? To chart the contours of our world, we have to understand the historical norms and transformations; urban cosmology — a brand new concept, as far as our googlings show — might be the place to start.

Kargon speaks at Johns Hopkins’s Gilman Hall tonight (Wednesday, December 14) from 7 – 9 PM. The event is free and open to the public.

Move Over, Da Vinci Code. This Is Real Life!

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The Current Exhibition at the Walters Art Museum in Mount Vernon is an historical mystery novel come to life. Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes centers around a remarkable manuscript with a remarkable story, one that “includes a monastery in the Judaean desert, a Jewish book dealer trying to flee Paris as the Nazis closed in, a French freedom fighter and an anonymous billionaire collector.”

The book in question is a thirteenth century prayer book, unremarkable apart from its age, except that the parchment used in the construction of the book was recycled from a previous manuscript: a tenth century copy of the otherwise lost writings of third century B.C. Greek mathematician Archimedes.

Through modern imaging technology, the original content of the book has been recovered, and it is purported to demonstrate the full breadth of Archimedes mathematical genius.

You can view the pages from the manuscript and learn about its strange history at the Walters Art Museum until January 1.

Guess Whose Birthday It Is?

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A hundred years ago, Baltimore was a dangerous place in a different way.  Its rail station was not only “drafty, antiquated and lugubrious,” it was occasionally lethal:  according to the Baltimore Sun, (2011 edition) “travelers risked their lives crossing busy tracks on foot at the signal of conductors to catch their trains. Many, unaware of approaching trains, were either killed or maimed when struck by locomotives.” Or the Sun (1907 edition): “It is probable that no city in the United States of the size of Baltimore or anywhere near its size and importance, is so poorly provided with railroad terminals as is this city. The passenger stations of the Pennsylvania Railroad here are most discreditable to the company and most uncomfortable, not to say dangerous to passengers who travel on that road.”

Which is why we should all find a way to celebrate the hundredth birthday of Penn Station this week (it’s a Virgo!), ugly man-woman statue notwithstanding. Penn Station is the eighth busiest rail terminal in the country, and even though they replaced that wonderful clicking/flipping arrivals & information board with a digital one, it’s still an endearing place to linger while you wait for your delayed Northeast Regional. It’s got the scruffy charm that DC’s Union Station lacks, and its less overwhelming than New York’s Penn Station. Now if they could only open a cafe that would sell me a Naked Juice for less than $5, I’ll be happy.

(Stop by the station over the next month to view artifacts, photos, and memorabilia commemorating the station’s centennial.)

Secrets of the Civil War — For Your YouTube Viewing Pleasure

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The Battle of Gettysburg can feel like ancient history. That is, until you consider the dinosaur footprints that are still visible on some of the rocks around the battlefield. I’m going to type it over again because it’s just so cool:  dinosaur footprints at Gettysburg. Really puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

When you live in a city with as many smart people as this one, you’re bound to get some fun meetings of the minds.  Like, say, a geologist nicknamed “Magma P.I.” and a licensed battlefield guide discussing the prehistory of the Gettysburg area and its effect on the battle.  Turns out those dinosaurs may have had more to do with that crucial Civil War event than you might’ve thought. 

If you get as much of a kick out of this stuff as I do, you can thank Johns Hopkins for adding to your YouTube favorites list.  This summer, the university is bringing together smarties from all sorts of disciplines to illuminate surprising new facets of the Civil War in fun, brief videos, just in time for the conflict’s 150 year anniversary. 

If prehistoric geology isn’t your thing, you can also watch a physicist explore the battle’s mysterious “acoustic shadow” phenomenon, in which people 150 miles away heard cannons that families a few miles down the road couldn’t hear at all.  And more videos are sure to come.

Recommended for scientists, non-scientists, Civil War buffs, and people who like to waste time on YouTube but feel like they’re getting smarter while doing so.

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