The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Baltimore house once owned by Frederick Douglass has become a history lesson

The interior of the historic house built by Frederick Douglass that Greg Morton bought and renovated. The living room is decorated with curated artworks by Black artists from around the city. (Schaun Champion/For The Washington Post)

After weeks of unrest in 2015 following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, many residents fled Baltimore. While distraught about the injustices taking place there, Greg Morton also saw an opportunity to do good. "I was like, 'Oh man, I could probably go back to Baltimore and start some type of community redevelopment ... then start like a mini Black town,' " says Morton, a Baltimore native who was living in New Jersey at the time.

His goal was to find a low-maintenance property that he could live and work in immediately. He ended up with much more: a home that celebrates Baltimore and Black culture while exemplifying the principles of its former owner, Frederick Douglass.

Morton, 38, bought 524 S. Dallas St., one of five historic houses tucked into an alleyway in the Fells Point neighborhood, in late 2015, for $190,000. He began renting it out on home-sharing sites like Airbnb two years later. At a time when some say Black culture in Baltimore is being erased, the property has become an unofficial tourist destination that preserves African American history in Charm City.

“The sky kind of opened up for this,” says Morton, whose mother had told him the house was on the market after seeing it on the news. Though its bones were still intact, the house needed to be completely redone, says Morton, who had never completed a renovation before. “I kind of passed on it ... but then I couldn’t sleep at night. I was like, ‘Man, it’s Frederick Douglass’s house. ... I should try to work that out.’ ”

Morton believes the seller got word that he wanted to preserve the home by paying homage to Douglass. The seller (who didn’t respond to requests for comment) dropped the price by $50,000, allowing Morton to buy it. He spent the next year renovating the home, preserving parts of the interior such as the exposed brick, hardwood floors and a winding staircase between the first and second floors. Modern additions included an upgraded kitchen and a bathroom on the first floor.

Morton has decorated the one-bedroom home’s interior with prints of artwork and pieces that speak to Douglass’s life, as well as artifacts from Black culture and works from African American artists. As such, guests feel as if they’re experiencing Black life in an authentic way. “There’s a difference between going to a gallery or museum and seeing the works [in a private home]. Somebody who collects works is going to put it over their couch and live with it. ... It’s like a backdrop to their existence,” says Morton, who has a story behind every artist showcased in the two-level home: Cartoonist Bryan Robinson, Morton explains, is a Baltimore native and “hometown hero.” Abstract artist Mildred Thompson came to prominence posthumously. Jerrell Gibbs is an emerging figurative artist who grew up in Baltimore. Kehinde Wiley entered the public consciousness after his portrait of Barack Obama. Among the home’s relics, there is a limited-edition poster for the 1975 film “Cooley High” and a vintage poster from a Motown Revue concert advertising such acts as Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight and the Pips.

Lou Fields, president of the Baltimore African American Tourism Council of Maryland, has passed by the house thousands of times. But it wasn’t until Morton moved in that Fields went inside, sometimes bringing tour groups. “I don’t really push going inside too much because it’s still his private home, and what he does with it on weekends prohibits how often we can go in,” says Fields, who shares the history of Douglass’s life in Baltimore on a walking tour in Fells Point.

Born into slavery, Douglass lived in Baltimore as a child. He spent most of his time in Fells Point learning to read and write and working in shipyards before he escaped to freedom in 1838. He would go on to become a civil rights pioneer, a renowned speaker, author and diplomat, as well as an adviser to President Abraham Lincoln.

In 1892 — three years before his death at his home in Anacostia — Douglass returned to Baltimore for a visit. He bought a plot that held Strawberry Alley Methodist Church, where he worshiped in his youth. He razed the church and built five properties as rental homes for African Americans. It was his way of creating stability and community for Black people in Baltimore after the Civil War.

The five homes of Douglass Row were listed on the National Register of Historic Places nearly a century later, in 1983. Kerry Stanley and her then-husband had bought the center home at 520 S. Dallas St. a year earlier for $23,000. All of the homes had White occupants at the time, including Stanley, who learned about the properties’ connection to Douglass through a neighbor. “I knew nothing about Frederick Douglass beyond what I had been taught in school in my formative years. But I knew he was important and significant, so I said we have to do something about this,” recalls Stanley, 62.

Another neighbor told Stanley that there was a sign under the formstone of her house. Intrigued, Stanley had a contractor peel away the facade and discovered a marble plaque that read Douglass Place. After more than a year of research, she was successful in listing the homes on the historic register. She later gifted Morton with the documents she used to build her case.

Stanley and her husband moved out of the home in 1990, selling the property for $72,500. Since then, homes on the block have been largely unkept or uninhabited. Fields says, “It’s unfortunate that our city of Baltimore and our state of Maryland have not seen fit to do better than what they have done with these properties — so individuals like Mr. Morton have stepped up to the plate.” Fields argues that neglected homes associated with prominent African Americans should be bought by the local government, restored and turned into tourist destinations. Instead, people like Morton, who spent $40,000 on renovations, have bought and fixed up the homes.

“We have lots of wonderful museums,” Fields says, “but the issue with smaller or niche historical sites is a fight for equity and funding in dollars.”

There are many ways in which “the physical and tangible evidence of African Americans, their contributions and their history is largely vanishing or misunderstood” in the city, says Dale Green, a professor at Morgan State University who served for eight years on the board of the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture, which oversees the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis.

Many people have no idea that Douglass Row even exists, says Green, who described Fells Point as “a highly gentrified and transformative community that’s seeing many of its African American population be pushed out or nonexistent.” He commends Morton for keeping Douglass’s legacy alive. “Frederick Douglass talked about an economic agenda, and certainly Greg has taken that to task with preserving his house and breathing new life into it.”

Christina Sturdivant Sani is a writer in Washington.

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