(This article originally appeared in the August-September 2022 print edition of the South Baltimore Peninsula Post.)
For nearly half a century, Baltimore-bound immigrants from Europe first set foot in their new land just a few blocks from the current-day Silo Point condominiums in Locust Point. One million people – an average of 20,000 a year – started their lives as Americans arriving at the B&O Railroad Immigration Pier between 1868 and 1914.
Although that pier is long gone, the history of immigration through Baltimore is preserved at Locust Point’s Baltimore Immigration Museum (1308 Beason Street). The museum, which opened in 2016, is operated by Baltimore Immigration Memorial, Inc., a nonprofit that also maintains the Immigration Memorial on the Under Armour campus at the end of Hull Street.
It’s a modest museum by Baltimore standards, occupying part of the first floor of an historic, three-story brick house owned by neighboring Locust Point Community Church. The museum’s largest artifact is, in fact, the house itself. “This is one of the last remaining buildings in Baltimore that was directly connected to immigration in this period,” says museum president Brigitte Fessenden.
The house was built in 1904 by the church next door, then the German United Evangelical Christ Church, to aid immigrants and sailors. Similar “immigrant houses” operated by different denominations could be found all over Baltimore at the time. This one provided temporary housing to 3,700 people before it closed in 1915 after the United States halted immigration at the outset of World War I.
The first floor of the house was devoted to office space, common areas, and lodging for the family of Reverend Otto Apitz, who ran the immigration house. The second and third floors had 20 rooms for immigrants, each large enough to hold a family of five.
“Rent was $2 a week,” says Nick Fessenden, the museum historian and Brigitte’s husband. “Immigrants could cook their own meals or purchase meals that the house would provide. The house eased the transition for people who didn’t have a place to stay. It also offered job placement services and English lessons.”
The museum’s main exhibit area is in two rooms on the first floor, which contain panels describing U.S. immigration in this period and the different ethnic and religious groups that immigrated to Baltimore: Germans, Irish, Jews, Poles, Lithuanians, Czechs, Italians, and Greeks. Period photographs and maps show the immigration pier, the location of other Baltimore immigration houses, and immigrants arriving on steam ships.
Displays also describe more recent waves of immigrants, including Asians, Latinos, and the African-Americans who moved to Baltimore from the rural South during “The Great Migration” of the mid-twentieth century.
The living quarters of the Apitz family have been recreated in a room at the rear of the house. The bedroom’s original furnishings were provided by Reverend Apitz’ great-granddaughter, who drove them to Baltimore from storage in Atlanta.
The vacant upper floors of the building are not open to the public. “The original rooms there are largely untouched, with paint peeling,” says Brigitte Fessenden. “We would like to eventually restore one or two of them and set them up to look like the rooms the immigrants would have used as guests.”
The most thoroughly researched item at the museum is not on display, but ask volunteer Jim Neill and he’ll gladly open it and give you a personal tour. Neill, a SoBo native and Locust Point resident, has painstakingly created a database of 150,000 names of immigrants who came to Maryland, using ship logs and other documents. (Before the Locust Point pier opened in 1868, most Baltimore-bound immigrants landed in Fells Point.) Neill will offer to do a search on your family name when you visit the museum.
The free museum is financed largely by donations from visitors, according to the Fessendens. Before Covid, about 1,500 people visited the museum each year, including groups from schools, genealogical societies, and civic organizations.
“People tell us we are one of the best kept secrets in Baltimore,” says Brigitte Fessenden. She began advocating for the museum along with others in the late 1990s, she recalls.
The Baltimore Immigration Museum is open from 1 to 4 pm on Saturdays and Sundays (March through November) and by special appointment. Group tours can be arranged by calling 443-542-2263. – Steve Cole