A quest to rebuild Baltimore’s Native American “reservation”

A few years ago, I took a group of college students on a short walking tour of the Lumbee Indian community in East Baltimore.

The Lumbee are native to North Carolina but have been in Baltimore since at least the 1930s. My grandparents moved here in 1963 with their three children, including my mother. I was born here, and that makes me a first-generation Baltimore Lumbee. I grew up to be a community visual artist and folklorist. I am currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland College Park, where I am finishing my thesis on the evolution of Lumbee relations with the Baltimore neighborhood where they settled.

I had given such tours informally many times before and had developed a familiar itinerary and narrative along the way: South Broadway Baptist Church, the Baltimore American Indian Center, Vera Shank Day Care and the Native American Building. Senior Citizens.

This time, an elder from the community came with us. Naturally, I handed over the responsibility of leading the tour to him.

The Baltimore American Indian Center, 113 S. Broadway, is the hub of cultural activities for area Indians.
Photo by John Davis, The News American, October 24, 1985. Baltimore News American Photo Archive, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland College Park. Authorization granted by the Hearst Corporation, Author provided

We started on my usual route, but to my surprise she stopped us just outside the South Broadway Baptist Church to talk about an Indian jewelry store that was next door. This was news to me. I didn’t remember the store because it disappeared before my time.

I started to wonder, what else do I not know about the places and spaces the Lumbee once had here?

Drawing on the memories of our elders, local newspaper records, and other archival material, I now map and reconstruct the historic Lumbee Indian community in East Baltimore.

With the redevelopment of the neighborhood and the displacement of the population of Lumbee, I see this as an urgent project of recovery – of history, of space and of belonging.

The Birth of the Baltimore “Reserve”

The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina is the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River and the ninth largest in the United States.

Our homeland is in southeastern North Carolina, with members residing primarily in Robeson, Hoke, Cumberland, and Scotland counties. We take our name from the Lumbee River which meanders through tribal territory, which is mostly rural and otherwise characterized by pine trees, farmland and swamps.

After World War II, thousands of Lumbee Indians migrated from North Carolina to Baltimore in search of jobs and a better quality of life. They settled on the east side of town, in an area that connects the Upper Fells Point and Washington Hill neighborhoods, 64 blocks comprising mostly brick townhouses with marble steps.

For many newcomers to Lumbee, the buildings all looked the same. It was a world apart from farmhouses, tobacco barns, fields and swamps from home.

In this cityscape, the people of Lumbee stood out – not looking like the Indians on TV, nor fitting in seamlessly with any of the races or ethnicities already living in Baltimore.

Today, most Baltimore residents would be surprised to learn that the area was once so densely populated by Indians that it was known as “the reservation.” An anthropologist who did fieldwork in the community during its heyday wrote that it was “perhaps the largest grouping of Indians of the same tribe in an American urban area”.

The Inter-Tribal Restaurant was owned and operated by the Baltimore American Indian Center in the South Broadway unit block.
Photo courtesy of the Baltimore American Indian Center, Author provided

The Lumbee community has gradually expanded over the years, so that my own generation has never experienced “the reservation” as such. But even in our own lifetimes – and especially in the past 15 years – we have seen the Lumbee population in the city decline sharply. The majority of our people have moved to Baltimore County and beyond. Others returned to North Carolina.

The old quarter is now being rapidly redeveloped. Historic buildings have been renovated. New luxury apartments abound. With the closing and sale of the former Vera Shank Daycare and Native American Senior Citizens building, the only real estate the Baltimore Indian Center owns is the building it occupies. The remaining elders are now in their 70s and 80s.

I know I came to this job at a crucial time.

The neighborhood as it once was

In order to learn more about the historical community, I first went to see the elders.

I was completely floored by what I learned. I knew the places I already mentioned, as well as some famous bars. But they talked about other restaurants, stores, more churches, more bars, investment properties, and even a dance hall that belonged to or was frequented by the Lumbee community.

Almost all the sites described to me by the elders have been redeveloped several times since the 1950s, or even demolished and completely erased from the landscape. Entire city blocks disappeared.

How, then, could I even begin to identify where things were?

This question sparked a wave of digging and looting through many local institutional archives in search of clues that would help me reconstruct “the reserve”.

At the downtown branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, I was able to leaf through many historical newspaper clippings about the community and the early efforts of the Baltimore American Indian Center, founded in 1968 as the “American Indian Study Center “. I even had in my possession original copies of the first newsletters of the American Indian Study Center, sent directly from the center to the library.

I took a cartography course at Johns Hopkins University’s Eisenhower Library, which led me to visit the Baltimore City Archives, where I was able to manipulate the original Sanborn maps. These maps provide extremely detailed aerial views of the neighborhood, including footprints of buildings that no longer exist.

The Sanborn Map Company published detailed maps of American cities in the 19th and 20th centuries for fire insurance companies. Since they contain so much detailed information, they are invaluable resources that show how American cities have changed over the decades.
Photo by author, Baltimore City Archives, Author provided

Later, at the Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation of the Baltimore City Planning Department, I was delighted to find actual street-level photographs of many buildings, which, ironically, were documented at the following urban renewal.

As a young man, Clyde Oxendine was a boxer and bouncer at Volcano, a bar frequented by Lumbee Indians.
Photo by C. Cullison, The News American, September 30, 1963. Baltimore News American Photo Archive, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland College Park. Authorization granted by the Hearst Corporation, Author provided

At the Hornbake Library at the University of Maryland College Park, I was able to view several volumes of Polk Baltimore’s city directories. I had assumed they were just old phone books. Instead, these volumes detail the individuals and businesses that occupied every building in Baltimore, street by street, block by block, in any given year. Not only was I able to confirm the addresses of the community sites that the elders had described, but in many cases I was also able to see where they themselves had lived.

The Hornbake Library also houses the Baltimore News American Photographic Archive, where I found portraits of community legends. There were Elizabeth Locklear, Herbert Locklear and Rosie Hunt – all founders of the Center. There was Clyde Oxendine, a boxer and the bouncer of the infamous Volcano, India’s baddest bar. And in the first folder of raw photos I opened, I found, of all of them, Alme Jones, my fiancé’s maternal grandmother.

Preserving the past for future generations

So far, we have mapped 27 Lumbee-owned or frequented sites in and around the neighborhood.

After having identified the materials of these many distant institutional archives, it seems imperative to constitute a new collection so that these treasures can cohabit, alongside personal archives which would never have been accessible to an outside researcher. Our community needs easy access to its history.

Naturally, the Baltimore American Indian Center is the primary repository for this new collection. Another is the Special Collections of the Albin O. Kuhn Library at UMBC. This amazing, publicly available resource already houses the Maryland Folklife Archive and the research of several Maryland folklorists. It will also one day house my research.

The younger generations of Lumbee should be able to see and know that the history of our people in Baltimore is much deeper and broader than it seems.

All cities are steeped in history. Whether we realize it or not, we are still walking in the footsteps of those who came before us.

As Baltimore’s neighborhoods continue to change, its residents would do well to realize that the Lumbees have been here a long time — and we’re still here.

Nohemi M. Moore