Exploring the Peninsula’s Historic Black Community

For many peninsula residents, Sharp-Leadenhall is the small neighborhood they pass through on their way to M&T Stadium or Camden Yards that features a sign proclaiming, “Sharp-Leadenhall Historic Community.”

The sign, though, understates Sharp-Leadenhall’s significance.

(This article originally appeared in our October-November 2021 newspaper edition, published on October 8.)

The roots of the community go back more than 225 years and extended beyond Sharp-Leadenhall’s boundaries today of Hill Street on the north, Hanover Street to the east, Ostend Street to the south, and I-395 to the west. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the community was home to prominent Black intellectuals and institutions, a stronghold of the abolitionist movement, and a likely hub of the Underground Railroad. It was also a diverse neighborhood of immigrants, Quaker abolitionists, and free Black people.

Much of the original South Baltimore community no longer exists. But Betty Bland-Thomas, a community activist and president of the South Baltimore Partnership nonprofit, has led walking tours of Sharp-Leadenhall to raise awareness of the neighborhood’s rich Black history.

“A lot of our history, particularly in the Sharp Street corridor, has been destroyed due to development,” she says. “What we are trying to do here in this community is not to be completely forgotten, not to let our rich history and our contribution to the quality of life here in Baltimore City go unrecognized.”

Sharp-Leadenhall: The First Century

Many of the histories of this neighborhood begin around 1790. By that time, Baltimore had diversified its economy away from tobacco and became a booming port town, says Eric Holcomb, executive director of Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP).

Back then, the area wasn’t divided into the neighborhoods that we know today, such as Sharp-Leadenhall, Otterbein, and Federal Hill, which were the creation of city planners in the later 20th century. “Prior to that, you would either say, ‘I live in South Baltimore’ or ‘I’m part of a church community,’” Holcomb says.

Early settlers included French Acadian and Haitian refugees, German and Irish immigrants, Quakers from Pennsylvania, and free Black people. In fact, in the mid-1800s, Baltimore had the largest free Black population in the country, Holcomb says. And many of these Black residents were drawn to South Baltimore, which was a center of abolitionist activity.

“What you have is pretty much integrated streets, especially on smaller streets,” he says.“This was the working class.”

The Sharp Street Methodist Church, founded in 1787 as the first Black Methodist congregation in Baltimore, was home to the Sharp Street School, the first Black school in the South. (Courtesy Maryland Center for History and Culture)
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a student at the Sharp Street School, was a renowned poet, author, reformer, and public speaker. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Residents worked at nearby industries. Early industries included brickyards and rope making. Later, others sprang up to the west around the B&O Railroad tracks, such as cooperages, glassworks, canneries, furniture factories, lumber companies, and chemical works, according to the Sharp Leadenhall Historic Resources Survey 2004 by CHAP and the city’s Planning Department.

This South Baltimore community’s boundaries evolved over the decades. But at times, they stretched as far north as Lombard Street, as far west as Fremont Avenue, and east toward Key Highway, Holcomb says. And as marshland toward the south was filled, the population and industries pushed south of Cross Street.

However, in the early 1850s, the B&O Railroad built Camden Station that displaced many Black families, with many of them relocating to the current Sharp-Leadenhall neighborhood, according to the city survey. It wouldn’t be the last time that Black residents in the community would be uprooted from their homes in the name of development.

Abolitionist Past

The Maryland Society for the Promotion of the Abolition of Slavery, also known as the Baltimore Abolitionist Society, was founded in 1789 at Pratt and Sharp streets. It was the third abolitionist society in the country and the first in the South. One of the Society’s successes was overturning a 1753 Maryland law that prohibited slave owners from freeing slaves in their wills.

The Society disbanded in 1796, but one of its Quaker founders, Elisha Tyson, later established the Baltimore Protection Society to prevent slave traders from kidnapping and enslaving free Black residents. (Tyson’s Sharp Street house was just five blocks east of one of the largest slave traders in the mid-Atlantic, Austin Woolfolk, Holcomb says. “One man the grand abolitionist, the other being the grand slave trader,” he says.)

Research on the community’s clandestine activities to aid runaway slaves is scant, but what is known indicates that Sharp Street was a focal point in the Underground Railroad, according to the city report. Tyson is named as one of the conductors.

Black churches were also active in the Underground. Sharp Street Methodist Church, on Sharp between Pratt and Lombard streets, for example, raised money to buy slaves’ freedom, and its membership included fugitive slaves. Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church, 20 W. Montgomery Street, held a fundraiser to free one of its lay ministers from a slave trader’s jail, according to the report.

The Role of Churches

“Look for the churches and you will find the foundation of the community at that time,” Holcomb says.

Some of the churches from the community’s early years remain, while others moved or shuttered.

The Sharp Street Methodist Church, founded in 1787 as the first Black Methodist congregation in Baltimore, gained national prominence. For decades it occupied a building between Pratt and Lombard streets. David W. Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass says the author, orator, and abolitionist joined the church while a young slave living in Fells Point in the 1830s.

The church was home to the Sharp Street School, the first Black school in the South. It gained a national reputation and attracted students as far south as Washington, D.C., according to the city report.

William J. Watkins was minister of the church, a leading abolitionist, and a teacher at the Sharp Street School. Two noted students, both related to Watkins, were his son, William Watkins Jr., who became co-editor of The North Star, an anti-slavery newspaper started by Frederick Douglass in Rochester, N.Y.; and niece, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a renowned poet, author, reformer, and public speaker.

Ebenezer A.M.E. Church on W. Montgomery Street is the oldest standing church built by a Black congregation in Baltimore. (Photo by Mary Braman)

For several years after the Civil War, Sharp Street Church hosted classes by the Centenary Biblical Institute, which later became Morgan State University. The church moved to northwest Baltimore in the 1890s.

Other churches also had significant roles in the community then and now. Ebenezer A.M.E. Church, for example, traces its roots to 1836. Its current structure, built between 1865 and 1868, is the oldest standing church built by a Black congregation in Baltimore, according to the city report. The church was added to Baltimore’s list of local landmarks in 1971.

Leadenhall Baptist Church was built in 1873, just when Sharp-Leadenhall was welcoming the migration of recently freed slaves to the area, according to the city survey. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

A New Century

The 20th century saw more changes to the area, both good and bad.  

By the 1920s, Black businesses in the blocks near Hill and Sharp streets thrived, providing a wide range of services, according to a 1921 article in The Afro-American. The businesses included financial institutions, a barbershop, hairdressers, drugstore, lunchrooms, meat market, doctors’ offices, undertakers, a contractor, and a pressing club where residents could get their clothes cleaned and ironed.

Betty Bland-Thomas, community activist and president of the South Baltimore Partnership nonprofit, has led walking tours of Sharp-Leadenhall to raise awareness of the neighborhood’s rich Black history. (Photo by Mary Braman)

But in later decades, a lack of investment in the community and the displacement of Black families to build I-395 took a severe toll on Sharp-Leadenhall.

Activist Bland-Thomas says she’s determined to continue to spread the word of Sharp-Leadenhall’s history. Though she suspended her walking tours of the neighborhood because of the Covid pandemic, she plans to expand and restart them next year.

In the meantime, peninsula residents who want to learn more about this culturally rich neighborhood can take a self-guided online tour developed by Towson University.

You can walk down the narrow Creek and Bevan streets and see the “alley houses,” two-storied, gabled-roof rowhouses developed in the mid-1800s. View the former Public School No. 126 at 823 Sharp Street, whose open interior design became a model for schools more than a century later.

Also check out the Little Montgomery Historic District – about 15 homes in the 100 block of W. Montgomery Street and northwest Leadenhall Street – that CHAP describes as the “earliest and only coherent remnant of the Sharp-Leadenhall neighborhood.” – Lena Ambrose

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