Billie Holiday on Pennsylvania Avenue. Credit: Irving Henry Phillips Sr., courtesy of Webster Phillips.

Immortalized in bronze, Billie Holiday sings in the Upton neighborhood, her hair adorned with gardenias. Across the striking statue once stood the Royal Theatre, the famed West Baltimore venue where Holiday and fellow Black jazz and blues stars once performed. 

The eight-and-a-half-foot statue is the sole monument of how Pennsylvania Avenue was an epicenter for Black art and entertainment businesses during the early to mid-20th century.

Racist housing practices like redlining and blockbusting caused decades of disinvestment in adjacent neighborhoods. Today, fewer and fewer folks remain who can remember The Avenue in its heyday.

“It is incredibly urgent that we get a better understanding of these histories because so much of that generation is passing away,” said Angela Carroll, who is lead curator and art consultant at the Pennsylvania Avenue Black Arts and Entertainment District. 

“If we don’t salvage this history in some way,” she continued, “all their children and their children’s children will have is the false narrative that other people— mostly folks that are not in their community — tell them about who they are and where they come from.” 

Carroll has spent much of her career highlighting unsung Black visual artists who have been excluded from the historical canon. About a year ago, she began collecting photographs from personal archives and encouraging people to take new ones, aiming to counter the narrative that the historically Black region is “impoverished, drug-ridden, rat-infested, and blighted beyond repair,” she said.

Ensuring that The Avenue’s cultural memory isn’t forgotten or erased, an online library of photos and oral histories will go live on Saturday, Nov. 20. The community-driven project is the first in a series to be spearheaded by the Black Arts District, which covers 149 acres and was designated in 2019

By the end of 2022, photography installations will be constructed at sites along The Avenue. And by the beginning of 2023, curricula about the history of local Black accomplishment and entrepreneurship will be launched in schools citywide.

The initiative is partly inspired by artist and organizer Ada Pinkston, whose work reimagines the idea of monuments.

“We wanted to create a sense of pride for the people who lived here so that they could see themselves as beautiful, profound and worthy of monumentalization,” Carroll said.

Rosa Pryor-Trusty, the first Black woman promoter in the Washington metropolitan area, is working on her third book about Baltimore’s history of Black entertainment. She penned the first one in 2003 after struggling to find information about the city’s Black musical heritage for her local entertainment columns in The Afro and The Baltimore Times.

Pryor-Trusty’s nom de plume is “Rambling Rose,” a nickname she says was given to her by Nat King Cole — who popularized the same-named song in 1962 — while she was touring with her group, Little Johnny and the Twilights, during the 1950s.  

Rosa Pryor-Trusty, the first Black woman promoter in the Washington metropolitan area, is working on her third book about Baltimore’s history of Black entertainment.

Although her singing career was cut short by a throat ailment, the Baltimore native went on to found an entertainment company, as well as a scholarship for aspiring musicians.

“No one is covering for my local people here in Baltimore that made history,” she said. 

The gap in the historical record of The Avenue is the result of systemic disinvestment. Additionally, according to Carroll, the city largely stopped documenting the region after the protests sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

Many have compared this unrest, which laid bare the trauma of hypersegregation, to the Baltimore Uprising that followed Freddie Gray’s death in police custody in 2015. Gray was a resident of Sandtown-Winchester, one of the neighborhoods that The Avenue cuts through.

To learn more about The Avenue’s past, Carroll partnered with groups like Baltimore Heritage, the Maryland Historical Trust and Nanny Jack & Co, a Black archives and consulting firm. Through these collaborations, Carroll discovered that The Avenue had not only artistic and cultural but academic and intellectual significance. 

She explained that these histories are mostly preserved only in the personal collections of those who lived and worked on The Avenue during its glory years. And so she is encouraging elders to contribute to the Black Arts District’s archival database. Younger people, she said, should also look through the ephemera — written and printed items originally meant to exist for only a short time — that they have inherited.

The Royal Theater in its prime. By the end of 2022, photography installations will be constructed at sites along The Avenue.

Come Saturday, people will be able to upload audio recordings and pictures of themselves and others directly to the online library through their cell phones and computers. 

“You don’t have to have a PhD to contribute to history,” Carroll said. “Your experiences and your memories are historic content.”

Carroll said the initiative speaks to the Black Arts District’s goal of promoting revitalization sustainably and non-violently — not through gentrification or displacement, which have sometimes followed art-centered development in Black communities. Images will be watermarked and protected, never resold, and no money will be made off them. 

“We’re not going to do something to you or for you; you are contributing to this work,” she said. “You have the power to tell your own story. We are not giving a voice to the voiceless. We are providing a platform through which a community who has a lot of voice and brilliance can share their talent and cultural memory.” 

Carroll, who teaches at MICA and Stevenson University, noted that outside the ivory tower, many archives are cost prohibitive. While some elders, she said, have been wary of technology and words like “digital” or “repository,” the online library, which will be kept free through grants, is a way of making history accessible — for people of all ages. 

The Black Arts District is currently looking for curriculum developers to design lessons based on the online library for use in Baltimore City Public Schools.

“What kids are taught in school is often history on a wider scale, despite the really rich history in Baltimore,” said Webster Phillips, an artist and archivist who has worked as a photo teacher.

Phillips has been visiting senior centers to identify unknown people and places in his grandfather’s photo collection. His grandfather, Irving Henry Phillips Sr., depicted the daily lives of Black Baltimoreans as a photographer at The Afro. So far, Phillips has scanned more than 13,000 negatives as part of the ongoing I. Henry Photo Project, which helped inspire the Black Arts District’s initiative.

Phillips noted that Black history education emphasizes a narrative of nationwide oppression — and not much else. 

Filling these gaps, Carroll argued, is imperative to envisioning the future of The Avenue.

“If you’ve been told that you come from nothing your whole life, then you will believe that you come from nothing,” she said. “Encouraging youth to trust that they are important — that where they come from is significant, that their histories have merit — is essential to ensuring that, moving forward, they feel like they have agency in telling their histories.”

On Saturday, the Black Arts District is hosting an event 12-3 p.m. at the Arch Social Club to encourage community members to bring photos and share stories about Black achievement in West Baltimore and specifically on The Avenue.