The 52 Places Traveler: A Celebration of African-American Culture in Baltimore

Scenes from Baltimore. Clockwise from top right: “David Klein’s Pez Collection” at the American Visionary Art Museum; the (original) Washington Monument at Mount Vernon Place; Club Charles; a sharecropping display at the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum.

Our columnist, Jada Yuan, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2018 list. This dispatch brings her to Baltimore; it took the No. 15 spot on the list and is the 19th stop on Jada’s itinerary.

“So, I’m in Baltimore for a few days, what should I do?” I asked eagerly, at an airport rental car counter.

“Um, go to Washington, D. C.?” said the employee, laughing. I swear, the next four people I spoke to, even in the city proper, had the exact response. Baltimoreans have a deep pride in their hometown. But coming here reminded me of Bogotá, another city whose residents love where they live, but seem perplexed at its appeal to outsiders, especially, in Baltimore’s case, with the nation’s capital 30 minutes away.

More than any other destination on this 52 Places trip, visiting Baltimore — my last stop in the United States before heading to Europe — felt like peeling an onion. And I hadn’t even gotten the skin off before I had to leave. To me, that was the real charm of Charm City. It is built, unapologetically, for the people who live there, not for tourists, and movement in that direction seems to meet with admirable resistance.

Yes, you can do a great tour of conventional American history — from Fort McHenry, where Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star Spangled Banner” during the War of 1812, to the “real” Washington Monument (it predates the one in D.C.). But what really stood out were the lessons in African-American history and pride, and the creativity that comes from being next-to-center. This is a place that treats black history like just, well, history, and I can’t wait to come back.

Down in the basement of The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum — in a recreation of a slave ship — Nat Williams, a tour guide, was explaining the concept of branding to a group of African-American teenagers. “Branding,” he said, “is when you heat up a piece of metal and you push it onto someone’s skin so it burns and leaves a permanent mark.” Illustrating this was a statue of an angry-faced white sailor holding down a brown man in shackles screaming in agony. The frankness was shocking and powerful. Mr. Williams had more ground to cover. “Moving on!”

I’ve never understood the appeal of wax museums, but this homespun educational gem had my number the minute I walked in, greeted by a life-size wax statue of the ancient North African military commander Hannibal atop an elephant, opposite Bessie Smith, the first licensed black woman pilot, in her plane. Back in 1983, the academics Elmer and Joanne Martin took the money they had saved up for a down payment on a house, and instead bought four wax figures (including Nat Turner and Mary McLeod Bethune), which they then took as a traveling exhibition to churches, schools and shopping malls. The project eventually grew to include 150 figures and a permanent home. The Martins are planning a new facility that will occupy the entire block.

Aside from the slavery ship and a gruesome look at lynching, most of the museum was hopeful and expansive. Malcolm X and Sojourner Truth got spotlights, as did Shirley Chisholm, the first American woman to run for president with a major party, and even Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development (highlighted for his pioneering neurosurgery work at Johns Hopkins Hospital). “He holds a cabinet position given to him by your president, Donald Trump,” said Mr. Williams. Every adult chaperone burst out laughing, and didn’t stop for a full minute.

“The man! Barack Hussein Obama,” said Mr. Williams, pausing in front of his statue to get serious with the students. “I have a message for you. Get all the education that you can, because they can take your house, they can take your job, they can take your car, but they can never, never take from you what you have learned.”

“They say it’s chicken, but it’s not chicken, but it tastes good,” said Lagrown Stafford, a Baltimore native and fervent meat eater I met on the light rail. When I asked Baltimoreans where to eat, the name that kept coming up was The Land of Kush, a black-owned business serving up vegan soul food.

Stepping inside the small counter joint felt like a hug; I immediately understood why Stevie Wonder showed up unexpectedly two years ago and then came back the next day. The walls were covered in Afro-centric murals. Teenagers from a job placement program worked the counter. A regular, who had brought his mom, steered me toward barbecue “ribs” and macaroni and “cheese.”

Soon, I met the owner, Gregory Brown, who opened this place seven and a half years ago with his wife, Naijha Wright-Brown. A longtime vegan, he had started off with a vegetarian food booth at a local jazz festival in 2004 while he was working at Verizon Wireless. Other chefs had turned down the gig under the assumption that the majority black crowd wouldn’t buy the food. Mr. Brown sold out every night. His wife had the idea to concentrate on soul food.

They’re doing so well they’re opening a second spot in a part of East Baltimore near Johns Hopkins Hospital. The name of the restaurant, by the way, comes from an ancient Nile civilization, Mr. Brown said. “I wanted people to know that black people had a rich history before slavery.”

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s birth. A great way to honor the famed abolitionist is the “Path to Freedom” walking tour, led by the guide Lou Fields through Douglass’s home in historic Fells Point, Baltimore’s original waterfront community.

We walked along the cobblestone streets where Douglass, born into slavery, spent his teenage years, teaching himself to read and write from discarded newspapers. As a young man, he toiled in the shipyards, earning money for his owner. From a pier, Mr. Fields pointed toward the site of an old railroad where, one day in 1838, Douglass disguised himself as a sailor and jumped on a northbound train to freedom.

He went on to become a famous orator, publish three books (largely responsible for educating the wider public to the abominations of slavery), edit five newspapers and become the first black man to have a one-on-one meeting with a president (Abraham Lincoln). He’s the only person in Maryland with four statues and two museums dedicated to him, one of which you can visit with Mr. Fields.

But the most interesting part of the tour was seeing a row of houses Douglass bought late in life in the 1890s. Accounts seem to show they were money-losers, but they are built on the same ground as the demolished Methodist church where Douglass found spirituality in his youth; it was the first place he had returned to in Baltimore when slavery ended, 26 years after he had left.

The biggest lessons I learned in Charm City, though, all came from people I met by chance. Walking toward Inner Harbor, I heard a beautiful voice singing behind me. Keith Stanford, 28, was 10 days out of prison; he plans to try out for “The Voice” and “American Idol.” He had gotten into gangs, he said, and wanted to set a good example for his son, and even seemed grateful for his stint because it kept him off the streets last year when Baltimore’s murder rate was the highest in the country. “I think everything happens for a reason,” he said.

Another night, I got in a Lyft driven by a woman named Andrea Neal, who I wished I could take with me on this trip for motivational pep talks. I told her how much trouble I was having with the writing part of this job, and she told me that the best thing I could do was surrender control and follow God’s guidance. “Don’t worry about perfection. There is none,” she said. “Let God intervene and create a wonderful masterpiece out of what you’re doing, so you can give him credit. He just wants the credit.”

My last night in town, I wound up in the car of Adrian Smith, another Lyft driver, who spends his days cooking in a nursing home. He was happy about some of the city’s changes, but had issues with a rerouting of bus lines that made it harder for people outside of downtown to get to work. Then he showed me the 14-inch Rambo knife he keeps in his car, and the finger he can’t lift because he cut a ligament throwing a potential robber out the window. “I got to do what I got to do,” he said. “I’m 40 years old. I got two kids and a wife. You want to know what Baltimore is? People like myself that hustle. We’re survivors.” Survivors who carry knives at all times? “Welcome to Baltimore,” he said.

— I returned my rental car after a day; parking was expensive and I am too much of a wimp for Baltimore driving. Public transportation is as bad as locals say. Walking in the daytime and doing rideshares at night worked out for me. Don’t skip a hike up Federal Hill for beautiful views of the harbor.

A Baltimore visit wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the American Visionary Art Museum, dedicated to self-taught artists, and encompassing the beating heart of weirdness that gave us the director John Waters, a Baltimore native. Covered in an elaborate mosaic of mirrors, the building has a glittery, twirling, 10-foot-tall sculpture of drag queen Divine, by the British artist Andrew Logan and an impressive Pez dispenser collection featuring three versions of Elvis.

— Make sure to stop by Mr. Waters’s favorite dive bar, Club Charles (also known as Club Chuck), in the Station North neighborhood, newly reopened after a mysterious shutdown last July. It glows red with Art Deco-inspired murals, and has the best jukebox in town.

— Dine or stay in new luxury hotels like The Ivy or the Sagamore Pendry, in a landmark building on a pier from 1914. Hotel Revival, where I stayed in the historic Mount Vernon neighborhood, has terrific views from its rooftop restaurant and bar. Butchery fanatics adore Parts & Labor. My best night of food and conversation was at Clavel, a hipster dream of a Mexican restaurant down a block I never would have gone without a tip from, yes, a Lyft driver.

— You obviously need to have a crab cake. G&M Restaurant made a believer of this non-crab-lover and is a beautiful short drive from the airport. Faidley’s Seafood comes with the bonus of being in the amazing Lexington Market, founded in 1782 and one of the longest-running markets in the world.

Jada Yuan is traveling to every place on this year’s 52 Places to Go list. For more coverage, or to send Jada tips and suggestions, please follow her on Twitter at @jadabird and on Instagram at @alphajada.

Previous dispatches:

1: New Orleans

2: Chattanooga, Tenn.

3. Montgomery, Ala.

4. Disney Springs, Fla.

5. Trinidad and St. Lucia and San Juan, P.R.

6. Peninsula Papagayo, Costa Rica

7. Kuélap, Peru

8. Bogotá, Colombia

9. La Paz, Bolivia

10. Los Cabos, Mexico

11. Chile’s Route of Parks

12: Denver, Colo.

13: Rogue River, Ore.

14: Seattle

15: Branson, Mo.

16: Cincinnati, Ohio

17: Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

18: Buffalo, N.Y.

Next dispatch: Iceland

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