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Baltimore Dig Preserves Past While Preparing for Future

UMD Researcher Partners With West Baltimore Nonprofit to Uncover Black History

By Liam Farrell

Baltimore dig

Photo courtesy of Adam Fracchia

Faculty and students from UMD and other Maryland colleges took part in a Baltimore archeological dig to uncover day-to-day life in Baltimore's Druid Heights, one of the city's most historically vibrant Black neighborhoods.

When Adam Fracchia heard an NPR story last year about an organization trying to build a positive future in Baltimore, he also saw it as an opportunity to continue preserving the city’s past.

The nonprofit, Black Women Build-Baltimore (BWBB), trains female residents in building trades such as carpentry and plumbing and refurbishes once-vacant and rundown homes in West Baltimore to promote homeownership. Fracchia, an assistant research professor in the UMD Department of Anthropology, wondered whether that rebuilding work could uncover some history in an area that once was home to Cab Calloway and Thurgood Marshall.

“It’s a fascinating place of African-American culture and a landscape of segregation and racial discrimination,” he said. “It hasn’t been explored archaeologically at all.”

After contacting Shelley Halstead, founder of BWBB, the pair set up a series of digs at an Etting Street house in Druid Heights from November through January. While Halstead always tries to preserve items in renovations, like restoring old light fixtures or saving newspapers once used for insulation, vacant rowhomes are often open to the weather and consumed by the elements.

“A lot of history is lost (and) not just in the buildings themselves,” Halstead said. “You lose that oral history when the blocks are empty.”

Fracchia, working with faculty and students from UMD and other nearby colleges such as Morgan State, Coppin State and the University of Baltimore, went digging in the backyard of a rowhouse originally built in the 1880s. While the surrounding neighborhood today features many boarded-up vacant homes, the Druid Heights area was historically a vibrant hub for the burgeoning professional class of Black Baltimore. Jazz clubs and dance halls shared the streets with the NAACP and some of the city’s oldest African-American churches. 

And while the team didn’t hit its goal of finding a privy—an archaeological gold mine of waste and trash that lend insight into day-to-day life—it did find writing slates, inkwells, broken medicine bottles and toys like clay and glass marbles.

“Most people don’t think about what they throw out,” Fracchia said. “It’s really an unbiased sample of people’s lives.”

Zihan Chen ’21, a geographical sciences and anthropology major who has worked with Fracchia on previous digs, assisted with the project and has been cataloguing the objects. He said it was a rewarding experience to make discoveries in an area with the “most regular, mundane qualities.”

“It’s surprising how much history you can have,” he said. “It’s interesting to dig at this place and see if this neighborhood can come back again.”

Fracchia and Halstead plan to do similar work on other Etting Street properties, and Fracchia is also heading an archaeological review of the Upton Mansion, a 19th-century Greek revival house on West Lanvale Street that was once home to one of Baltimore’s first radio stations and a Black music school. Empty for more than a decade, the registered historic landmark is undergoing a $7 million revitalization to become the new headquarters of The Afro American Newspaper and other organizations.

“It’s very easy to go in and clear everything and say, ‘We are starting over,’” Fracchia said. “Instead, these neighborhoods and their residents matter, and their history matters and can be preserved. Our archaeological work is trying to serve the community in this way.”

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